The Card Player may well turn out to be Dario Argento's most commercially accessible film but it also continues the downwards spiral that began with Trauma and continued to this, his latest effort.
The setting is Rome where a serial killer is abducting young women and engaging police in high stakes games of poker, via an internet chat room. The rules are simple: 5 hands, first one to win 3 is the victor. If the police win, the woman is released, if they lose....
Italian detective Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca, who almost shares the name used by Asia Argento in The Stendhal Syndrome) is ordered by superiors to play for the Polizia but is forced to watch the victim die following a change of heart by her chief: "We can't get involved in blackmail, we're the police."
When a second woman is kidnapped, the police decide to play, sending a young cop into the line of fire with the aim of securing her release. As a young card sharp enters the fray, Mari forms an unlikely alliance with abrasive Irish cop John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), who was despatched to Rome with a brief to protect vulnerable tourists. During their endeavours, a 3rd woman is snatched and her identity brings matters a lot closer to home.
Those unfamiliar with Argento's previous work may find much to enthuse over here. They will probably enjoy the various plot machinations, complete with numerous red herrings, and find the deadly poker games to be an enthralling part of the killer's cat-and-mouse tactics which culminate on a railway track. There's also a gruesome shock scene to contend with; a tense moment where Mari catches sight of the killer by a most unsual line of vision and a nifty sequence where a web cam comes adrift, giving us a different and most unwelcome viewing angle.
It sounds a busy little number, but in reality, The Card Player sees Argento trading on former glories with nods to Deep Red, Tenebrae and The Stendhal Syndrome. Sad to say, the thematic and visual references are pale shadows of his previous work and do nothing to restore his reputation as a master of horror cinema. Even worse, the killer's identity is painfully obvious before the film has even reached the half-hour mark (in truth, it's a good deal sooner than that). Consequently, the 'shattering truth' concerning those life and death games come as no surprise whatsoever. Granted, Rocca and Cunnignham both provide sold lead characters but they are gradually diminished by a combination of a below average script and lacklustre (often downright clumsy) direction; Rocca, in particular, losing some credibility when she's asked to take part in a laughable finale straight out of a Buster Keaton film: cover your ears when she takes a cell call right at the end of the film - words fail me.....
Those of you who enjoyed the film and own the Region 2 Czech DVD will be interested to to learn that Arrow Films will release The Card Player in the UK on 15th November. A comparison between the two discs shows both parties have used the same transfer whicjh looks marvellous with strong colours, accurate fleshtones and wonderfully deep blacks. The Arrow disc does include a featurette (which is disabled on my review copy) whilst the Czech DVD includes a few trailers.
So, where does Argento go from here? Well, it appears that he's now prepared to end years of speculation and finally work on the final instalment of 'The Three Mothers' trilogy. Current form may suggest this is not a wise move, but it would be nice to think he has at least one more great film left in him. It would also be a major boost if Argento secures the involvement of Daria Nicoldi in this project. She may just save his career!
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.