Writing and direction both seem out of kilter with the central idea in "Croupier," a psychological drama-cum-thriller that rarely catches fire. British director Mike Hodges has an aptitude for tougher, grungier fare that is ill matched here as a straight-arrow London croupier is seduced into compromising his ideals.

Writing and direction both seem out of kilter with the central idea in “Croupier,” a psychological drama-cum-thriller that rarely catches fire and falls short of its slicker, neo-noir aspirations. British director Mike Hodges, in his first feature outing since “Black Rainbow” in 1990, has an aptitude for tougher, grungier fare that is ill matched with an already underworked script by Paul Mayersberg about a straight-arrow London croupier seduced into compromising his ideals. Pic’s lack of dramatic tension and small-scale setting stack the odds against its taking much at the theatri-cal table.

Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is an emotional-bypass case who’s struggled for years to escape from the shadow of his buccaneering father (Nicholas Ball).

Originally from South Africa, he has a girlfriend, former cop Marion (Gina McKee), who adores him more than he does her, and a strong desire to become a writer rather than follow Dad into the gaming business.

After blowing a commission to write a soccer novel, Jack gets a job at a casino on his father’s recommendation, and is again hooked on the profession after the first spin of the wheel. His professionalism wins him high marks with his boss, but trouble looms in the shape of Jani (Alex Kingston), a South African high-roller who makes eyes at him across the blue baize and later inveigles him into helping her shady associates rob the joint. Jack, meanwhile, is turning all his experiences into a novel called “I, Croupier.”

There’s a neat twist at the end, but it seems to belong to a film far slicker and more psychologically trenchant than what reaches the screen. Thanks to dialogue that is often clumsily written and too expository, Owen only scratches the surface of his potentially fascinating character — a man who likes playing God at the tables, dealing out fate to suckers, but who can’t sustain a relationship in the real world if it requires any kind of emotional commitment.

Pic largely jogs along, with few dramatic highs and lows, and shows its stripes only in the gaming sequences, which convey something of the electric attraction Jack feels for the milieu. Smaller roles are better filled than those by name players: Kingston is passable as Jani but given some weak dialogue, and McKee’s girlfriend character never gets off the printed page. Biggest mystery is the small role given to second-billed Kate Hardie, a fine actress in the intriguing part of a cynical croupier, who disappears almost as soon as her role gets going.

Though the story is based in London, the mostly interior-set movie was largely shot in Germany. Production values are pro but on the modest side.

Croupier

British-German

Production

A Channel Four Films presentation, in association with Filmstiftung NRW, WDR and La Sept/Arte, of a Little Bird/Tatfilm production. (International sales: Film Four Intl., London.) Produced by Jonathan Cavendish. Executive producer, James Mitchell. Co-producer, Christine Ruppert. Directed by Mike Hodges. Screenplay, Paul Mayersberg.

Crew

Camera (color), Mike Garfath; editor, Les Healey; music, Simon Fisher Turner; production design, Jon Bunker; art direction, Alexander Scherer; costume design, Caroline Harris; sound (Dolby), Ivan Sharrock; line producer, Jake Lloyd; associate producer, Martin Wiebel; assistant director, Michael Murray; casting, Leo Davis. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (market), Feb. 14, 1998. (Also in AFM.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Jack Manfred - Clive Owen Bella - Kate Hardie Jani de Villiers - Alex Kingston Marion - Gina McKee Jack's Father - Nicholas Ball

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