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.