To pinpoint the appeal of British B-movie bruiser Jason Statham, one need look no further than the place where the ball of Statham’s foot, the crown of his head, or the bend of his elbow makes sudden, bone-shattering contact with some lesser specimen of the human gene pool. Such collisions, alas, are too few and far between in “Wild Card,” a serviceable Vegas neo-noir that carries an unusually tony pedigree for a Statham vehicle (in the form of Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman), but lacks the amped-up Looney Tunes mayhem of the “Transporter” and “Crank” franchises. Lionsgate is wisely betting low on this Jan. 30 release, with a limited theatrical run and a more aggressive VOD push.
“Wild Card” represents the second attempt by Goldman (“All the President’s Men,” “The Princess Bride”) and producer Cassian Elwes to fashion a movie from the writer’s 1985 paperback potboiler, “Heat,” about the various entanglements of one Nick Escalante, a seen-better-days Philip Marlowe type working as a bodyguard-for-hire in the bowels of Sin City. Released in 1986, “Heat” the movie was a famously troubled affair that starred the fading Burt Reynolds as the supposedly Mexican-American Escalante, and went through a revolving door of directors, including Robert Altman (who left before filming began), Dick Richards (who quit after Reynolds reportedly socked him in the face) and Jerry Jameson. Given all that, the end result was surprisingly seamless (albeit a box-office bomb), with the miscast Reynolds bringing a nicely weary ex-athlete’s swagger to the role — at least until the movie arrived at its alleged action scenes, rendered with all the kinetic intensity of a Geritol commercial.
The action in “Wild Card” is markedly more adept, thanks to the work of Hong Kong choreographer Cory Yuen, who put Statham through his paces on the “Transporter” films and who has a grand old time here staging an epic casino brawl scored to the Drifters’ cover version of “White Christmas.” But when the fists and roundhouse kicks aren’t flying, there’s lots of down time in “Wild Card,” during which the film tries to make a compelling character study out of Escalante (here rechristened Nick Wild), a compulsive personality drawn equally to the blackjack table and to sob-story underdogs in need of a helping hand. In a lively opening scene, Wild appears to get his clock cleaned by a feisty pit boss (Max Casella) half his size in a bar parking lot. But the whole thing turns out to be a setup — a charade designed to make the other man look tough in front of his sultry girlfriend (Sofia Vergara). That, you see, is the kind of guy Nick Wild is.
Goldman has cited that scene as the impetus for writing “Heat,” and nothing that comes after it quite measures up. (For the new film, the writer has done little but dust off his earlier screenplay and update some dollar amounts to 2014 prices.) Directed by Simon West (“The Mechanic,” “The Expendables 2”), “Wild Card” ambles episodically from vigilante revenge fantasy to mismatched buddy movie, as Wild comes first to the aid of a woman (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) from his past who’s been brutally raped by a pretty-boy gangster (Milo Ventimiglia); and, later, a meek computer whiz (Michael Angarano) who wants Nick to teach him how not to get dirt kicked in his face.
When Wild isn’t buffing the floor with the carcasses of the various thick-necked goons who dare to cross his path, he tries gambling his way to the “f–k you money” he needs in order to quit Vegas for good and retire to a life of leisure in Corsica (seen in fleeting, dreamlike glimpses, perhaps to satisfy some sort of French tax credit). As usual, Statham gets a lot of mileage out of his droll, ever-present scowl, but as in “Heat,” the movie’s disparate narrative strands never really come together, and the climactic showdown feels pretty anticlimactic. That’s at least partly because Goldman has excised the ludicrous third act of his novel (in which, among other things, the Angarano character is revealed to be the post-op transsexual daughter of a prominent televangelist couple) without creating a new one to take its place.
Goldman’s dialogue, however, is still juicier than most, especially when it’s being spoken by the likes of Stanley Tucci (as a powerful casino boss) and Hope Davis (as a flinty blackjack dealer). They seem to be inhabiting their own private story on the edges of “Wild Card,” about the grizzled Vegas veterans who’ve hung around too long and seen too many dreams vaporize in the desert air. And they give the only unpredictable sparks to a movie altogether less wild than staid.