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Game of chance: Casino dealer takes a novel risk in 'Croupier'

Friday, June 23, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Welcome back, Jack, to the house of addiction."


RATING: Unrated but R in nature.

STARRING: Clive Owen, Alex Kingston, Gina McKee

DIRECTOR: Mike Hodges

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars


That's what a struggling writer thinks when he steps into a London casino, where there are no windows or clocks, only mirrored walls distorting the interior and its inhabitants. Gamblers, or punters as they're also called, think they can beat the house. Dealers think they can break the rigid rules. Cheaters think they can prosper.

In the British movie "Croupier," opening today at the Regent Square Theater in Edgewood, fast-fingered Jack (Clive Owen) is there to earn money as a dealer. The rules are strict: No gambling, no fraternizing with the female dealers, no talking or even acknowledging customers outside the casino, no tips.

Jack is an avowed non-gambler -- his mantra is "I don't gamble," spoken sharply -- but he is a risk taker and calculator. His transformation from daytime writer to nighttime dealer, complete with a switch from blond to black hair, doesn't sit well with his girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee). She's a store detective who made a job switch of her own, which goes unexplored here, who liked the old Jack and now barely sees the new one. She calls him an enigma; he calls her his conscience.

Soon, though, Jack is breaking some of the cardinal casino rules but mentally gathering material for a novel. And what rich material is sitting across the roulette wheel or blackjack table or lurking in the changing room. A glamorous redhead (Alex Kingston) who gambles at his station. A man who oozes desperation and can't make it out the door with his winnings. A fellow dealer who seems to live beyond his means.

Life, the ultimate game of chance, deals Jack some expected and unexpected cards. He narrates these turns in detached but clever fashion.

Unlike a big, flashy, music-infused movie such as "Casino," this one from director Mike Hodges has a cold edge to it, just like Jack. Watching it is like stepping into an overchilled room; there is little warmth here and that's part of its appeal.

It's a noirish gambling thriller that takes us behind the mirrored glass, where the manager can survey the action on a bank of video monitors. It drops into the appropriately named Journey's End Hotel. It tosses out sweeping generalizations -- all gamblers are born liars, are superstitious, are destructive rather than self-destructive -- and sees what sticks.

Owen, who has brooding, dark good looks, made his American debut opposite Halle Berry in "The Rich Man's Wife." His credits also include "Close My Eyes," "Bent" and, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of "The Return of the Native."

He anchors the center of the roulette wheel that is this story. Radiating out are an eclectic collection of supporting players, including "E.R." doc Kingston as the glamorous gambler; McKee, who played the friend in a wheelchair in "Notting Hill," as the live-in girlfriend; Katie Hardie, as a casino colleague named Bella; and Nicholas Ball, Jack's gambler father who always pretends he's calling from somewhere other than a noisy casino or resort.

"Croupier" is really about illusions. It's no wonder that mirrors seem to be everywhere, especially when Jack enters the casino and the reflection conveys the idea of Jack walking away from himself. And straight into the house of addiction.

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