The Card Player Review
Dario Argento remains one of the most intiguing filmmakers around. Since 1969, with the release of his debut feature The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, he has continued to both enthrall and baffle audiences for more than 30 years. After the enjoyable but somewhat less than groundbreaking giallo that was 2001's Non Ho Sonno ("Sleepless" to most English-speaking audiences), he has once again released a thriller in the classic "whodunnit" style: Il Cartaio ("The Card Player").
A madman is on the loose in Rome, kidnapping young women. Thanks to the wonderful world of the world wide web, he has set up a webcam system and, every time he captures a new victim, challenges the Rome police to games of online video poker. Each game lasts for three rounds and, for every round that the police lose, he will amputate a part of the victim's body. At the end of the three rounds, if the police lose, the girl dies. Enter John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), a tough-talking, foul-mouthed, alcoholic policeman from Ireland. Previously a top detective in London, he was consigned to working at the British embassy in Rome after killing two people, including a minor, in a hostage situation. Brennan's on the case, and he means business. He teams up with Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca), a no-nonsense Italian detective, and the two set about tracking down the mysterious Card Player. On the way, of course, they must play various games of video poker in an attempt to save his various victims. The stakes are raised, however, when the police chief's (Adalberto Maria Merli) own daughter (Fiore Argento) is abducted, and it becomes clear that the Card Player knows more about Anna than she would like.
The Card Player was initially developed as a vehicle for Dario Argento's daughter Asia, with her reprising her role of Anna Manni from The Stendhal Syndrome. These plans fell apart, however, when Asia departed for Hollywood to star in films like XXX, meaning that the story had to be greatly revised and the role recast. Stefania Rocca takes over the role of Anna (surname altered to Mari), and she is given a completely different history. Her father was a gambler who commited suicide by jumping in front of a train before her very eyes, so the world of video poker and playing for the victims' lives has a personal significance for her. Rocca handles the part well, giving a likeable and believable performance. Liam Cunningham has his work cut out: he's playing a stereotype, but he plays it well. His performance is energetic and at times touching, and the fact that neither Rocca or Cunningham were post-dubbed (a major change from Argento's usual way of working) gives their performances a credibility that is usually lacking in these films. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are dubbed, resulting in some very inconsistent performances. As with Non Ho Sonno, some of the voices are well-chosen and performed, whereas others are over the top and don't match the appearances or performances of the on-screen actors. Also, while the dialogue is relatively good, there are some appalling lines scattered here and there (my favourite being when the police chief points ominously at the computer screen and announces: "We'll get you!"). That said, when I saw it at the Glasgow Film Theatre, two highly immature twentysomething females spent the entire film laughing at things that were quite blatantly not funny. Takes all sorts, I suppose.
The issue of the internet as a plot device was always going to be a contentious one, but The Card Player is actually the first film I have seen that has actually presented computers and the internet in anything approaching a remotely believable manner. Although there are a few cringe-inducing moments, the worst being a scene where the Card Player uploads a virus and the police hackers' displays disintegrate in highly ludicrous animation, by and large Argento sticks to the rules and creates an environment where computers don't do things they wouldn't in real life.
The Card Player is a very tense thriller, but it lacks Argento's trademark visual flair. The photography, by Irreversible cinematographer Benoit Debie, is glossy and efficient, but disappointing given Argento's track record. The film more than makes up for it, however, by being well-paced and at times extremely gripping. Argento has always been king of the tense set-piece situations, and he outdoes himself here with a lengthy and nailbiting scene when the killer breaks into Anna's house in the dead of night. Although the film is somewhat lacking in on-screen gore, what is implied off-screen is at times very unsettling, and the grainy web-cam footage of the various terrified, screaming women is a good deal more powerful, in my opinion, than explicit blood and guts would be. The various dead nude corpses, all completely prosthetic, are also extremely well-done: some of Sergio Stivaletti's best work to date. Goblin veteran Claudio Simonetti's score is also very enjoyable, suitably tense and with a very catchy main title theme.
Overall, The Card Player is not a groundbreaking film at all, but it is an enjoyable one and represents a slightly different direction for Dario Argento: a slightly more mainstream piece, but still with enough of his signature styles to distance it from the hordes of generic thrillers out there. Highly recommended, if you can actually find it playing anywhere.
Trivia: Dario Argento's daughter Fiore Argento plays the role of the police chief's daughter, Lucia. A highly regarded fashion designer, she also designed her own costumes for the film.