Review – Not Just A Poker Face (“The Card Counter”)

There have been many movies about playing Poker & Blackjack, counting cards to win, and trying to beat the house (21, Rounders, Rain Man, Molly’s Game, etc.), but how many had Poe Dameron in them? Hmmm. . . I wonder how he would have done against Lando Calrissian in a game of Sabacc?

Twice in the movie the protagonist, William Tell (Oscar Isaac) says, “Is this story going anywhere?” and “The narrative is broken.” If he’s referring to this film, he’s got it right on both counts. Slow, pondering, and listless, this deep-dive into the character of a broken PTSD ex-military man is a mix of the narrative voice from Molly’s Game, with her propensity of explaining the game and its mathematics and probability, and high-stakes gambling from the movie 21. Too bad it has none of the fun, excitement, or whip-smart dialogue of those films. We follow William as he leaves his stint in prison and becomes a gypsy, traveling from casino to casino, playing Blackjack, and winning just enough to stay under the radar. This private, sullen, emotionless man gets a visit from vivacious LaLinda (Tiffany Haddish), a hustler looking for players to play Texas Hold’em for her.

William at first balks, but then agrees after meeting the son of a former inmate of his. His name is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a lazy, 20-something loafer, whose only goal in life is to kidnap, torture, and then kill his late father’s C. O., Major John Gordo (Willem DeFoe), who he blames for his dad’s death. But before this can happen, William and the Kid (as Will calls him) take off on a road trip from casino to casino so that William can win big at high-stakes Texas Hold’em, the Kid can sit around and play slots, and LaLinda can rake in her percentages. But what is William hiding with his bizarre motel room habits, those disturbing nightmares, and lengthy conversations that go nowhere?

After a deadly-dull first & second act, the third act delivers some substance to chew on (the brief motel scene between William & the Kid is riveting), but sadly, it’s not enough to save this picture from the overall darkness and, and as William points out all too well, the broken narrative. Written & directed by Paul Schrader, a long-time collaborator with master director Martin Scorsese, Schrader has written such major classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and American Gigolo. He also directed many others like Dog Eat Dog, Cat People, and Patty Hearst, but this film is a slow, unimaginative slog that only has glimpses into what could have been a great movie. The pacing is glacial, plot holes abundant, the dialogue is problematic and sounds unpolished, and the story branches off with side stories offering no resolution.

At least Oscar Isaac gives this performance all the intensity of a ticking time bomb about to explode, but we only get to see a glimmer of this late in act two. Haddish plays it relatively straight here, without her usual over-the-top goofiness; a nice change of pace for her. Tye Sheridan and William DeFoe pretty much sleepwalk through this movie, except for the aforementioned brief motel room scene where Tye shines and gets a chance to really act. If you truly want to see this, wait a few weeks until it drops to the streaming services where you can see it for free or some special $5 fee.

**Now showing in theaters only

21 (2008)

Based on a true story, but mired in controversy, this is a fact-based account of six Asian M.I.T. students who played Vegas Blackjack and never lost. But somewhere from the bestselling book (Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich) to the screen, there was a race switch.

He just wanted to go to Harvard Medical, but super-smart ace student Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) had a slight problem. Money. 300K, to be exact. Working in a small Boston mom & pop clothing store wasn’t cutting it, even with his buddy, Miles (Josh Gad). But fortune favors the patient and Ben gets a surprise visit from his mathematics professor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who introduces him to a very special. . . ah, club? Y’see, Mickey has gathered a bunch of gifted students who count cards while playing Blackjack, and he figures that Ben is a natural at it. After Ben first rejects the invitation, he’s swayed back into the group by Jill (Kate Bosworth), a girl he’s got the hots for.

After learning the tricks of the trade (cue the montage), he and his new friends are off to Las Vegas for his inaugural run. Needless to say, he not only racks up a sizable amount of money, but he enjoys it as well! Besides Jill, also playing alongside him are his co-horts in crime, jealous loud-mouth Fisher (Jacob Pitts), happy-go-lucky Choi (Aaron Yoo), and stalwart Kianna (Liza Lapira). Life is good for Ben, spending weekends in Vegas, making money for his schooling, living large in hotels, and being with his new girlfriend. But! What he and the others don’t know is the top security chief of Vegas, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), has been watching them!

Quicker than a house of cards falling down, Ben’s life comes crashing down upon him, after he lets his joy of counting cards become a gambling addiction. He not only loses all of the money he earned, but Mickey throws him under the bus for breaking “the house rules”, thus ruining his life. Apologizing and asking for a second chance, Ben gets backs in, but what he really plans is a con game and sweet revenge against Mickey. Screenwriters Allan Loeb (Things We Lost In The Fire) and Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool) have taken the book and swapped out the six Asain students for only five students, only two of them being Asain, another case of Hollywood “white-washing”.

The movie itself is told matter-of-factly, using a nice The Sting ending to wrap up an otherwise paint-by-the-numbers film. The characters are all well-drawn, with Spacey pretty much doing his Doc character from Baby Driver. Sturgess, sans his British accent and looking like a young Toby McGuire, is wonderful here as the innocent student turned card counter and gambler. Bosworth has great chemistry with Sturgess, along with Josh Gad, who is just having fun cracking jokes. If you were ever curious about how someone could “beat the system” and win at Blackjack, this movie shows you one possible method and the college kids that cracked the code. At that level, it was quite fascinating how they did it and the secrets they employed.

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