Card sharks and grifters look like the stuff of an engrossing movie but, in the end, under-realized direction and characters deliver less than a full deck. Match-up of a card smoothie with a pair of con artists, and a face-off with a notably aging Sylvester Stallone, would seem to have all the ingredients for a classy diversion.

Card sharks and grifters look like the stuff of an engrossing movie in “Shade,” but, in the end, under-realized direction and characters deliver less than a full deck. The match-up of a card smoothie with a pair of con artists, and a climactic face-off with a notably aging Sylvester Stallone, would seem to have all the ingredients for a classy diversion. But momentum, wit and plotting aplomb seem to seep out of tyro writer-director Damian Nieman’s script until what’s left isn’t likely to draw more than a core audience curious to check out the notable cast. Vid action should nonetheless be fine.

Prelude functions as a grabber rather than anything salient to the main tale. Young hustler Stevens is caught cheating at an underground gambling hall in the ’60s, then survives an ensuing explosion of gunplay that leaves nearly everyone else dead.

In the present, grifters Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) and Tiffany (Thandie Newton) wear disguises to pull off a scam at a gas station. Their next project deals in cards, so they bring in talented players Vernon (Stuart Townsend) and Larry (Jamie Foxx). Former is to play the cool dealer, while latter is to dominate a high-stakes game with his cocky gift for gab.

First set-piece at an elegant home hosted by Dina (Dina Merrill) seems to be the closest thing in America to the swanky Monte Carlo-style card experience. Larry makes a scene and blows his hand, losing $85,000. But, what proves a setback for the crew is much worse for Larry, since the money he lost actually belongs to a local (and effectively out-of-frame) crime boss, who sics the fearsome Marlo (Roger G. Smith) on the hustler. As Smith reliably does in role after role, his Marlo is an unconventional chap whose charm (in this case, of the blood-curdling variety) completely dominates pic while he’s on screen.

But, this is all mere window-dressing for the main event: Charlie’s and Tiffany’s risky scheme to cheat Stevens (Stallone) — now an international gambling legend known as “The Dean” — in a private game for high-rollers. All too predictably — in a plot that lacks the twists of a grifters pic like “Seven Times Lucky” — Charlie and Tiffany and Vernon end up disappointed by the end of their evening with Stevens, though not all is what it seems.

“Shade” has an initially pleasant but finally bothersome habit of stopping the central yarn’s forward drive for brief character detours. A telling one is with Stallone. He shows up at an establishment run by long-ago friend Eve (Melanie Griffith). Stallone’s “Dean” then delivers a monologue meant to offer insight into the character, but it instead stops pic in its tracks and comes off like an apology by Stallone in regard to his declining career (“Lately I’ve been going through the motions … getting lazy … maybe I should retire … .”).

Other scenes of this type are a bit more successful, such as one (set at Hollywood’s legendary Magic Castle) given wonderful crustiness with skilled brevity by Hal Holbrook. In the end, Nieman tries to pull together too many strands.

Byrne underlines his perf with a telling tone of sadness, and Newton picks up on the same, lovelorn vibe. Despite scene-stealing from Smith, Foxx, Stallone and Griffith, Townsend ultimately is the center of attention in a quietly confident turn that stands apart for its lack of flash. In their brief moments, Bo Hopkins, Merrill, Patrick Bauchau and rapper-thesp B-Real are anything but shy.

Lenser Anthony B. Richmond’s widescreen work is aptly slick, set in an authentic, well-observed Los Angeles. Sections with intertitles such as “The Steer,” “The Mechanic” and “The Cross” promise excitement that never quite arrives, while pic’s main title is a slang expression for misdirection in gambling.

Shade

Production

An RKO Pictures release in association with Merv Griffin Entertainment, Hammond Entertainment, Judgement Pictures, Cobalt Media Group. Produced by David M. Schnepp, Christopher B. Hammond, Griffin, Ted Hartley. Executive producers, Joe Nicolo, Bo Hopkins. Co-producer, Carl Mazzocone . Directed, written by Damian Nieman.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Claremont widescreen), Anthony B. Richmond; editors, Scott Conrad, Glenn Garland; music, James Johnzen ; music supervisor, Randy Gerston; production designer, Gregory Van Horn; art director, Nicole Gorg; set decorator, Leslie Kale; costume designer, Susanna Puisto; makeup, Stacy L. Hodgson; sound (Dolby Digital), Stacy Hill; supervising sound editor, Glenn T. Morgan; associate producers, Mark Moran, David Boxerbaum; assistant director, David Allen Cluck; casting, Bonnie Timmermann, Tamer Howard, Pam Lyles. Reviewed at Laser Pacific screening room, Los Angeles, March 11, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Vernon - Stuart Townsend Charlie Miller - Gabriel Byrne Tiffany - Thandie Newton Larry Jennings - Jamie Foxx Eve - Melanie Griffith Stevens - Sylvester Stallone The Professor - Hal Holbrook Marlo - Roger G. Smith Scarne - Bo Hopkins Dina - Dina Merrill Malini - Patrick Bauchau Louis Freese - B-Real
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