You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Card Player

Italo horror master Argento deals a surprisingly tame hand in "The Card Player," in which a serial killer forces the police to play video poker for his victims' lives. Without a drop of blood and most of the violence off-camera, pic is short on the Grand Guignol thrills for which the director is famous. Could penetrate more mainstream markets like TV.

With: Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham, Silvio Muccino, Adalberto Maria Merli, Claudio Santamaria, Fiore Argento, Vera Gemma.

Italo horror master Dario Argento deals a surprisingly tame hand in “The Card Player,” in which a serial killer forces the police to play video poker for his victims’ lives. Without a drop of blood and with most of the violence off-camera, pic is short on the kind of Grand Guignol thrills for which the director is famous. Argento fans lusting for a classy slasher movie of the “Suspiria”/”Opera” variety are headed for a disappointing rendezvous with an old-fashioned police thriller, upgraded by serious actors in the main roles. Pic could, however, penetrate more mainstream markets like TV.

Plotting and characters strongly recall TV stereotypes, from the over-modern police office where the poker games take place, to icky post-mortems in the morgue and video images of squirming women trying to scream through taped mouths. They also bring to mind silent movie cliches, particularly an extended scene of the heroine chained to railroad tracks as a train bears down on her.

The main role, originally slated for Dario’s daughter, Asia (reprising her gutsy police inspector in “The Stendhal Syndrome”), was re-written for Stefania Rocca after Argento Jr. passed. Pic was advertised as having been shot in English (though cast is all-Italian apart from Liam Cunningham), and the bad lip-synch in Italo version caught recalls the days before direct sound became the norm on Italian sets. The eventual English-language version will suffer the absurdity of Cunningham speaking the same lingo as the Italians.

Irish cop John Brennan (Cunningham) is sent to Rome to investigate the kidnapping of a British tourist there. From their snazzy offices in a gorgeous Baroque palazzo, the police watch the girl’s final minutes on their computers. A psychopathic killer has demanded they play video poker with him; if the police win, the girl will be spared. However, the victor must win three hands of poker, and for each round the police lose, she’ll have a body part cut off. The police chief (Adalberto Maria Merli) calls the killer’s bluff, and the poor tourist is fished out of the river the next day.

Inspector Anna Mari (Rocca, straining to look mousy and repressed in a long dark wig) leads a group of cops who are in favor of playing with the maniac, and soon another game is on with another young girl strapped to a chair. Carlo (Claudio Santamaria), an officer out to impress Anna, volunteers to play the cards for the police, but destiny deals him (and the victim) a bad hand. Ignoring Carlo’s jealousy, Anna pairs off with the brilliant John, who has a knack for post-mortems.

Story, like characters, has never been Argento’s strong point, and things plod along unsuspensefully from one video murder to the next. Realizing their incompetence at poker, the police conscript a mop-headed, 19-year-old genius (Silvio Muccino) to play for them. But his bravura puts him at risk of a killer who doesn’t like being beaten. While holding back on his trademark on-screen violence, Argento skillfully builds tension in this stalking scene, and in another when Anna is trapped with the killer inside her apartment.

Rocca (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”) and Santamaria (“The Son’s Room”) are two of Italy’s hottest young actors, and gamely pull themselves in for roles that require less emotional depth than adroit posing. Cunningham (“Dog Soldiers”), who comes across as a bright and likeable fellow in the Italo dub, seems to chafe the most in an underwritten part. For the record, helmer Dario’s other daughter, Fiore, plays one of the kidnap victims.

The striking visuals that usually outweigh plot shortcomings in Argento’s movies are less evident here. Belgian d.p. Benoit Debie, who made his mark with Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” turns out some beautiful, minimally lit camerawork, but most eye-catching is the film’s abundant use of Rome’s romantic natural and architectural landscapes.

Claudio Simonetti’s fine electronic score pulsates in hot Dolby with the action, and editor Walter Fasano keeps up a fast pace.

The Card Player


Production: A Medusa release of a Medusa Film, Opera Film production. (International sales: Adriana Chiesa Enterprises, Rome.) Produced by Dario Argento, Claudio Argento. Directed by Dario Argento. Screenplay, Argento, Franco Ferrini.

Crew: Camera (color), Benoit Debie; editor, Walter Fasano; music, Claudio Simonetti; production designers, Antonello Geleng, Marina Pinzuti Ansolini; costume designer, Patrizia Chericoni, Florence Emir; sound (Dolby Digital), Tomasso Quattrini, Maurizio Di Coste; special effects, Sergio Stivaletti. Reviewed at Embassy, Rome, Jan. 2, 2004. Running time: 102 MIN.

With: With: Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham, Silvio Muccino, Adalberto Maria Merli, Claudio Santamaria, Fiore Argento, Vera Gemma.

More Film

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck's Addiction Drama Set for Awards-Season Release

    Warner Bros. has given Ben Affleck’s untitled addiction drama an awards-season-friendly release date of Oct. 18. The film, which has been known previously as “The Has-Been” and “Torrance,” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Affleck as a former basketball player struggling with addiction, which has led to him losing his wife. As part of [...]

  • Jordan Peele'Us' film premiere, Arrivals, New

    Jordan Peele Explains the Meaning Behind the 'Us' Michael Jackson Reference

    Jordan Peele’s horror movie “Us” is filled with pop culture references, from “Jaws” to “Goonies.” But the most divisive might be right in his opening sequence. Warning, minor spoilers ahead. The movie about a couple (played by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) and their children being hunted and brutalized by a mysterious family that looks just [...]

  • Swiss Film Award Winners Led By

    ‘Those Who Work,’ ‘Chris the Swiss’ Top 2019 Swiss Film Awards

    Two debut features in writer-director Antoine Russbach’s “Those Who Work” and Anja Kofmel’s animated documentary “Chris the Swiss,” were the big winners at Friday night’s Swiss Film Awards, notching three plaudits each. Sold by Be For Films, “Those Who Work,” stars Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet, who has appeared in every single film by Jean-Pierre and [...]

  • Lupita Nyong'o as Adelaide Wilson doppelgänger

    Box Office: Jordan Peele's 'Us' to Easily Surpass 'Get Out' in Killer Opening Weekend

    Jordan Peele’s horror-thriller “Us” will likely slay the box office competition this weekend. It’s projected to generate an impressive $64 million through the weekend at 3,741 sites in North America, early estimates showed Friday. “Us” is over-performing recent forecasts, which had ranged from $38 million to $50 million. It should wind up with about $27 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content