Four Dogs Playing Poker

Amigos turn against each other in "Four Dogs Playing Poker," a by-the-numbers thriller that never manages to stake out much nastiness to call its own. Some scenes are indifferently staged, and thesps (particularly the Brit-born Olivia Williams, struggling with an American accent in the linchpin role) don't seem fully engaged by their sketchily drawn characters. With an OK cast, some decent direction and so-so twists, it's a safe bet that "Dogs" will go straight to video.

With:
Audrey - Olivia Williams Julian - Balthazar Getty Holly - Stacy Edwards Kevin - Daniel London Felix - Tim Curry Ellington - Forest Whitaker Carlo - George Lazenby

Amigos turn against each other in “Four Dogs Playing Poker,” a by-the-numbers thriller that never manages to stake out much nastiness to call its own. An OK cast, some decent direction and so-so twists make it a safe bet that “Dogs” will go straight to video.

Hardly into the kitschy poster art implied by the title, the main pals here are upscale Angelenos who decide to pull a complicated art heist for fun and profit. With all the posing and pouting here, it’s as if the cast of “Friends” never got their raises and decided to go bad. Unfortunately, live-apart couple Audrey and Julian (Olivia Williams and Balthazar Getty), electrical whiz Kevin (Daniel London) and hard-boiled insurance rep Holly (Stacy Edwards) aren’t nearly as well differentiated as your average sitcom dweller.

That works OK in the pic’s best seg, an on-location trip to Buenos Aires that finds the foursome — under the tutelage of experienced crook Felix (Tim Curry) — infiltrating a posh wedding party thrown by a millionaire collector (a suave George Lazenby). They make off with the man’s prize sculpture, a little dancer by Degas, and head back to L.A. Trouble is, they’re not quite sure their booty made it onto the boat heading north, and neither is the gangster (Forest Whitaker, in for only two scenes) who’s supposed to be paying them for it.

Forced to produce the sculpture or a million bucks, the group comes up with what must be the worst plan ever: Thanks to Holly’s job, they’ll take out life insurance policies and then draw straws to see who gets bumped off — and who does the bumping.

This seems a lot dumber than going to the police, but it does give helmer Paul Rachman, veteran musicvid maven and a Slamdance fest founder, the chance to fill out pic’s running time with four-way cat-and-mouse action. The pals’ personalities are so dimly lit, though, it’s hard to read what this bad turn does to their psyches and their alliances — especially when Kevin’s rampant drug use does a wild-card number on whatever logic is left by the time they all start stalking around with guns. Occasional stabs at black comedy, as when one cohort tells another that “You look like a million bucks,” feel half-hearted.

Some scenes are indifferently staged, and thesps (particularly the Brit-born Williams, struggling with an American accent in the linchpin role) don’t seem fully engaged by their sketchily drawn characters. The stakes, which should attempt to reach “Sierra Madre” levels, never seem as high as script keeps telling us they are. But Mexican lenser Claudio Rocha (who also shot “The Weekend,” another Seattle fest offering) does a lot with confined spaces, and Rachman clearly enjoys the more complicated chases. Too bad he gambled on an undercooked script.

Four Dogs Playing Poker

Production: A Half Moon Entertainment production, in association with New Moon Prods. Produced by Steve Hoffman, Matt Salinger. Executive producers, William Sherak, Jason Shuman. Directed by Paul Rachman. Screenplay, Thomas Durham, William Quist.

Crew: Camera (color), Claudio Rocha; editor, Conrad Gonzales; music, Bryan Tyler, Scott Hackwith; production designer, Alec Hammond; art director, Marc Mileto; set decorator, Catharine Tarver; costume designers, Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell, Vera Wang; sound (Dolby), Randy Lawson; line producer, Betsy Mackey; assistant director, Richard L. Fox; casting, Ronnie Yeskel, Richard Hicks. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 6, 2000. Running time: 98 MIN.

With: Audrey - Olivia Williams Julian - Balthazar Getty Holly - Stacy Edwards Kevin - Daniel London Felix - Tim Curry Ellington - Forest Whitaker Carlo - George LazenbyWith: Stephen Phillip Jones, John Nigel Taylor, Arly Jover, Jason Cairns, Ray Berrios, Peter Mark Vasquez, Jorge Luis Abreu, Octavia L. Spencer.

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