Those hoping for a major Alex Cox comeback, after his splendid but little-seen "Highway Patrolman," will be seriously disappointed with "The Winner ," an unappealing crimer set in Vegas. Cox's technical brilliance and illustrious cast of indie actors can't rescue an uninvolving, Tarantino-like yarn about small-time scoundrels and innocent losers.

Those hoping for a major Alex Cox comeback, after his splendid but little-seen “Highway Patrolman,” will be seriously disappointed with “The Winner ,” an unappealing crimer set in Vegas. Cox’s technical brilliance and illustrious cast of indie actors can’t rescue an uninvolving, Tarantino-like yarn about small-time scoundrels and innocent losers. Prospects for theatrical distribution are scanty for a film that’s meant to be quirkily comic but ultimately is more annoying than thrilling.

One can only speculate about the quality of scripts submitted to Cox, the gifted director who made two of the most original and eccentric films of the ’80 s, “Repo Man” and “Sid and Nancy,” but who’s also responsible for such self-indulgent bombs as “Straight to Hell” and “Walker.” In his latest outing (and first pic in five years), a character-driven ensemble piece in the vein of “Repo Man,” Cox tries valiantly, but to no avail, to ignore the asinine plot by imposing on it a highly stylized, noirish treatment.

Wendy Riss’ screenplay, based on her stage play, centers on Philip (Vincent D’Onofrio), an innocent known as “the luckiest man in the history of North America” due to his unprecedented record everything he touches turns to gold. Surrounded by losers who’re desperate to make a quick buck, Philip is a naive man who doesn’t really care whether he wins or loses, which makes him an attractive target for deception and manipulation.

Central idea of “The Winner” is that a bunch of con men work arduously to break Philip’s spirits and rob him of his gift. Once word spreads that Philip is a winner, he finds himself at the center of nasty power games. Johnny (Michael Madsen), his estranged brother, suddenly returns to town with their father’s corpse, which is missing a hand. That hand is thrown into the aquarium of Louise (Rebecca DeMornay), a sexually alluring, small-time singer who enjoys living on the edge and ripping people off. Predictably, Louise finds her emotions torn between old b.f. Johnny and current beauPhilip.

Convoluted but basically unengaging plot abounds in secondary characters and tangled complications that are recycled from other recent offbeat crimers. In the guise of friendship, three opportunistic amigos from New Jersey also attempt to swindle their newfound pal. And supervising it all from his control room is the elegantly dressed casino owner (Delroy Lindo), who’s taken to philosophical musings about the meaning of life.

Despite the second-rate yarn, Cox shows again his visual bravura, with excellent shots of Las Vegas’ less glamorous side, long sweeping takes of interiors (such as the Liberace Museum), compositions that are always filled with tension, and fluent editing. Helmer has succeeded in making a fast-moving pic that never betrays its origins as a stage play. But exciting as Cox’s style is, it calls even more attention to the ludicrous story and misguided performances of many of the actors, particularly Frank Whaley and Madsen, who overact terribly.

D’Onofrio, as the innocent guy; DeMornay, as the femme fatale and pic’s only female; and Lindo, as the casino manager, have some good moments, but they can’t redeem a rambling, verbose film whose tone shifts from scene to scene, evoking Lynch, Scorsese, Tarantino and their imitators. “The Winner” suggests that it may be a good idea not to use Vegas, exploited in half a dozen films this year, as a locale in the near future.

The hysterical climax, in which Whaley’s character invades the casino and shoots everyone in sight in his desperate effort to locate Philip, bears strong resemblance to the ferocious mayhem in Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn,” probably because both films rely on the special effects team of Tommy Bellissimo and Charlie Belardinelli.

The Winner

Production

A Norstar Entertainment production. (International sales: MDP Worldwide.) Produced by Ken Schwenker. Executive producers, Mark Damon, Rebecca DeMornay. Co-producers, Jeremiah Samuels, Wendy Riss. Directed by Alex Cox. Screenplay, Wendy Riss, based on her stage play "A Darker Purpose."

Crew

Camera (color), Denis Maloney; editor, Carlos Puente; music, Pray for Rain, Zander Schloss; production design, Cecilia Montiel; sound (Dolby) , Mark Ulano. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 12, 1996. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Philip - Vincent D'Onofrio
Louise - Rebecca DeMornay
Casino Owner - Delroy Lindo
Joey - Frank Whaley
Johnny - Michael Madsen
With: Richard Edson, Billy Bob Thornton, Saverio Gerra.
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