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Wild Card

D: Simon West / 92m

Cast: Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Max Casella, Sofia Vergara, Jason Alexander, Anne Heche

Nick Wild (Statham) is a security consultant living and working in Las Vegas. He’s also a gambler with a dream: win $500,000 and spend five years living the life he’s always wanted, starting with a year sailing around the Mediterranean. He takes a job protecting a young man named Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) while he plays at the casinos. At the same time he receives a message from a friend called Holly (Garcia-Lorido), asking him to visit her. When he does he finds she’s been raped and beaten up by three men she met at the Golden Nugget. She tells Nick she wants to find out who they are so she can sue them.

Nick soon discovers the three men were local gangster Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia) and two of his men. He’s warned not to go anywhere near them, but when he tries to tell Holly he couldn’t find out who the men were, she realises he’s lying and reminds him of a debt he owes her. Knowing it will cause trouble for him, Nick pays a visit to DeMarco at his suite. He disables DeMarco and his men, giving Holly – who’s never intended to sue them – a chance to exact her revenge on the gangster. She threatens to cut off his penis, and even nicks the side of it; he cries and pleads for forgiveness. Relenting, Holly takes $50,000 from him and splits it with Nick before leaving town.

Nick takes Cyrus to a casino, and while Cyrus plays at a craps table, Nick takes his half of DeMarco’s money and begins to gamble. He’s soon on a winning streak that culminates in his winning $506,000, enough for him to leave Las Vegas. He’s about to cash in his chips when he’s struck by an anxiety attack. He tells Cyrus that he’s been fooling himself: the money isn’t enough for him to avoid having to come back to Vegas after his five years are up. Telling himself he needs a bigger pot of money he stakes all his winnings on a single bet… and loses it all. Afterwards, he’s attacked by DeMarco’s men but manages to defeat them. But this leads to Nick being summoned to see Baby (Tucci), the boss of organised crime in Las Vegas. DeMarco has come to him with a story that Nick came to his suite, beat him up and shot his men, and stole the money to gamble with. Now Nick has to prove to Baby that DeMarco is lying, or his life will be forfeit…

Wild Card - scene

A remake of the Burt Reynolds’ movie Heat (1986), Wild Card is a project that Statham has been trying to get made for around five years. It’s also an adaptation by William Goldman of his own novel and a reworking of his script for Heat. A crime drama that features another of Statham’s occasional forays into character acting, the movie doesn’t offer anything new (hardly possible given the material’s history), but it does make for an entertaining, if occasionally risible, trip through the underbelly of life in Las Vegas.

It’s a milieu that’s been explored many, many times before, but here there’s a sense of  ennui that drifts alongside the narrative, making the characters’ desperation and need for self-improvement all the more affecting. Cyrus is a twenty-three year old self-made multi-millionaire who wants to know what it’s like not to be afraid, and to have the self-confidence to “be a man”. Holly is an escort who, like Nick, wants a better life where she’s not always at the mercy of others. And Nick himself is afraid that he’ll spend the rest of his life in Vegas, scratching a living and ending up alone. A lot of this is underplayed, a smart move by Goldman, and it gives the movie an edge that comes as a bit of a surprise.

With Las Vegas providing a more than suitable backdrop, Wild Card keeps its themes of redemption and avarice well to the fore. Nick’s return to the table after winning the money he’s always dreamed about is both inevitable and startling, and gives Statham the chance to show that he can be a better actor than a lot of people give him credit for. Sure he can pull off an action scene without breaking sweat or getting out of breath, but here he’s stretched on more than a few occasions – lying to Holly, appearing to kowtow to DeMarco, going back to the tables, looking bereft after he’s lost – and while he still maintains an aloof, taciturn presence, it’s a more rounded performance than usual.

But this being a Jason Statham movie, and one directed by Simon West – they also collaborated on The Mechanic (2011) – there’s room for a clutch of exhilarating, superbly choreographed fight scenes. Fans won’t be disappointed by the brutally inventive ways in which Nick dispatches various henchmen – one close up of a nose being broken is particularly impressive – and if these sequences still prove to be the main highlights of a movie that does its best not to be “just” an action movie, then it’s unfortunate but not entirely surprising.

The rest of the cast provide adequate support, though some are reduced almost to cameos or appear to have done only a day’s filming. Angarano and Ventimiglia have more than most to do but have a job with characters who remain cyphers throughout, with Ventimiglia in particular struggling to make more of DeMarco than the preening, psychotic gangster he appears. Garcia-Lorido brings an emotional intensity to her role that bodes well for her future, while Tucci phones in one of his patented “man with excess mannerisms” performances as Las Vegas’s capo di tutti capi. But with the likes of Davis, Heche and Vergara reduced almost to walk-on roles, the movie ends up feeling a little misogynistic.

All in all, West directs with his usual visual flair and helps Statham give one of his best performances. Goldman’s script is peppered with some less than quotable lines of dialogue – “He goes crazy and he shoots maybe my best two friends in the whole world” – but the structure is solid and Nick’s love/hate relationship with Sin City is woven into the storyline in a way that is meaningful and instructive of Nick’s personality. There’s a pleasingly claustrophobic feel to the casino scenes, and Shelly Johnson’s cinematography captures the glitz and the glamour of Las Vegas alongside its less attractive features.

Rating: 7/10 – worth seeing as a movie where Statham stretches his abilities as an actor, and for a couple of outstanding fight sequences, Wild Card is the kind of action movie that starts slow and builds to a (vicious) climax; unpretentious, and occasionally solemn, one can only hope that Statham and West get a chance to team up again soon.