Placing the viewer inside the mind of a gambler on a downward spiral and then grasping at straws to deliver a hopeful resolution, "One Last Ride" falls short of the finish line as a statement on the costs of unreasonable risk-taking.

Placing the viewer inside the mind of a gambler on a downward spiral and then grasping at straws to deliver a hopeful resolution, “One Last Ride” falls short of the finish line as a statement on the costs of unreasonable risk-taking. The potent cast, Tony Vitale’s assured direction and a solid foundation with lead thesp Patrick Cupo adapting his own play help mitigate many of the pic’s deficiencies, making it a solid vid and ancillary player if not a likely pick in theatrical races.

Though it lacks the sheer, depraved intensity of similarly themed pics like “The Gambler,” “Ride” shares much of the sunlit sadness of “Save the Tiger,” also populated by desperate, middle-aged men plying their trade in Los Angeles’ garment district (though here the protag is a salesman, not the biz’s owner). Milieu is a perfect fit for Michael (Cupo), first seen losing a bet on an also-ran horse, and then trying to illegally scam his boss Orlick (Charles Durning) to cover a debt.

As in “Tiger,” a character’s tragic collapse happens largely amid everyday circumstances and in a concentrated period of time. Michael is juggling his high-pressure job, mounting debts and suburban home life with wife and expectant mom Gina (Anita Barone), and the sense of the screws tightening becomes close to unbearable.

Part of the underlying pain stems from how Michael attempts to hide his gambling addiction from Gina, as he furtively mulls the Racing Form in the dead of night after earlier kissing her growing tummy.

A good deal of the heightened tension, along with viewers’ collective frustration watching Michael’s self-destructive behavior, derives from Cupo’s exquisitely realized performance. It’s the result of an actor having thought long about his character’s backstory, developed on the anvil of theater and finished here onscreen. If this marvelously interior thesping is undermined, it’s by the filmmakers’ decision to insert needless and repetitive shots visualizing Michael’s angst. Here is an interesting case where a less cinematic approach, eschewing rapidly cut shots and instead pondering Cupo’s expressive face, would have been the smarter tactic.

Michael is constantly warned by pals Carmine (Joe Marinelli) and Charlie Figs (Mario Roccuzzo) that the guys he owes money mean business, but in the true addict’s positivist stupor, he believes his next win will even the score. As cliched as this sounds, it plays with vitality, especially when thuggish bookie Tweat (Chazz Palminteri, credited in pic’s materials though, curiously, not onscreen) makes his well-timed presence felt.

More than cold henchman Richie (Tony Lee), Tweat is disturbingly drawn in classic noir tones that linger — especially considering he ultimately exits with his power intact to terrorize another day.

In a bygone era, there’s a good chance Michael wouldn’t have gotten out of this mess alive. Here, though, the character finally exorcises his demon — the ghost of his gambling father (Robert Davi, nattily dressed in ’50s attire). But it’s a conceit that doesn’t feel true to the story’s dark heart –and Michael’s final redemption plays like a commercial for a 12-step program.

Supporting cast is aces across the board, including Barone as a wife shocked into her worst realizations; Durning as an honest businessman contending with deceit; Marinelli as a loyal friend who may be an even sadder guy than Michael; Davi as a suave operator who knows more about his “system” than about fathering; and Palminteri in one of the fiercest characterizations of his career.

Vitale’s pacing and handling of the rising tension is expert, and suggests stronger films to come. Production package for indie work on a limited budget is impressive, and a slew of locales from Santa Anita to downtown L.A. will warm the cockles of lovers of filmed Los Angeles. Ang Lee, Cupo’s longtime comrade from his NYU film school days, served as an exec producer.

One Last Ride

Production

A Little g/Magicworx production. (International sales: BV Intl. Pictures, Avaldsnes, Norway.) Produced by Christian Arnold-Beutel, John J. Kelly, Patrick Cupo. Executive producers, Ang Lee, Daniel E. Adams. Co-producers, Claire Kupchak, J. Peter Schweitzer, Solveig Langeland, Ricky Kripalani. Directed by Tony Vitale. Screenplay, Patrick Cupo, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Mark Doering-Powell; editor, Gregory Hobson; music, Josh G. Abrahams; production designer, Debbi Andrews; set decorator, Jill Belknap; costume designer, Peter A. Lovello; sound (Dolby Digital), Brian Linder, Chris H. Leplus; supervising sound editor, Patrick M. Griffith; associate producer, Bjorg Veland; assistant director, Scott Chester; second unit camera, Chip Schner; casting, Michael Greer. Reviewed on videotape, Los Angeles, April 5, 2004. (In Method Festival.) Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Michael - Patrick Cupo Tweat - Chazz Palminteri Michael's Father - Robert Davi Gina - Anita Barone Sid - Jack Carter Carmine - Joe Marinelli Charlie Figs - Mario Roccuzzo Nicky - Tracey Walter Richie - Tony Lee Orlick - Charles Durning
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