You don't need me to tell you that The Card Player isn't one of Argento's best films. The look of astonished horror a friend of mine received from Argento expert Alan Jones when she told him she quite enjoyed the film says it all; the once-great director seemed to have turned a corner in his career and was heading down a blind alley where nobody else wanted to go.
To be fair to Argento, this film really was an attempt to move his films in a new direction. Watching the film again with the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that the director is trying to leave behind the giallo laurels that many had accused him of resting upon. The Card Player couldn't be further from the gore-soaked pulp homage of his previous film, Sleepless, or the Technicolor nightmares of Profondo Rosso or Suspira. This film attempts to be a straight serial killer movie, focussing on the police as they desperately try to track down and save each victim from a horrific death. The problem is, the killer wants the police to gamble for each victim through an online poker system he's designed - Surely the odds are stacked in his favour. Gone are the lengthy trademark Argento murder sequences - in their place we have some horribly realistic semi-decomposed corpses and post-mortem examinations as the detectives search for clues.
This was quite a bold move on Argento's part, and one that split the fans. Many left disappointed by the lack of Argento-esque flourishes and one of Claudio Simonetti's least inspired soundtracks. Others enjoyed the new direction, finding their expectations subverted and an interesting mystery to solve. One thing did seem to unite both groups, though; the ending. Not wanting to spoil anything for the few of you who won't have seen this, the resolution to this movie has provoked huge amounts of debate from both the movies' admirers and detractors. For a film that revolves around the idea of gambling lives in a poker game, many felt that Argento played hard and fast with the rules in the finale, although a closer watching reveals this may not be the case. Either way, the conclusion does feel a little cheap, as it did in Sleepless, and the revelation of who the killer is feels like a technique borrowed from Murder She Wrote. On the plus side, at least The Card Player doesn't pull the ending out of nowhere like the previous movie did, and it does resolve the plot in a (mostly) logical manner.
As usual, Arrow Video has put together a very nice little package for this film. Starting with another excellent Rick Melton cover, this has to be one of the strongest images of the series so far. A naked woman, bound and gagged, with playing cards cunningly concealing her most curvaceous portions; it's certain to raise a few eyebrows but is tame stuff compared to the cover for the forthcoming bluray of Caligula they have lined up. Blimey!! The artwork is also supplied on a large poster, as per usual. Should the kinky image not be quite to your taste, the sleeve is reversible and features the original Italian cover which is much less contentious.
In addition, we have an excellent short booklet from Alan Jones which provides a huge amount of information on the background of the movie in a very small space, and is well worth a read. There's also a lengthy Making Of documentary, as seen on the previous DVD. The real meat here is "The Complete Dario Argento Trailer Reel", featuring 18 promos that make you want to dig out those earlier movies yet again....
Picture and sound give very few reasons for complaint - We're even offered the option of the Italian language track here, which some prefer despite many of the leading actors speaking in English. Indeed, it's Irish actor Liam Cunningham, best known for playing grumpy Irish people, who steals the show here with his role as a grumpy Irish cop over from the UK to help out with the case. Despite occasionally straining with the amount of exposition that he's forced to deliver, Cunningham manages to deliver more charisma as he frowns his way through the murder scenes than lead detective Stefinia Rocca.
The Card Player stands as an interesting experiment on Argento's part, but one that's not quite successful. As a thriller, for me, this isn't as satisfying as it should be, mainly due to certain shenanigans towards the end of the movie. But then the build up isn't as tense as it should be either. We never get to know the victims in any great detail before the games commence, so there's very little connection. Take a look at some of Argento's classic work and see how effectively he pushes up the tension for even minor characters about to face the chop - often purely by focussing on their peril for a protracted period of time. Here, the first we see of them is often a crying face in a little window on a laptop that a crowd of cops are staring at. Sure, we know the killer is bad and must be stopped, but we don't feel the same sense of urgency and sympathy that we do in even something like Tenebrae.
For me, this is an interesting movie to watch with hindsight - especially when viewed as a sort of precursor to the Saw movies with which it shares some thematic elements. It's certainly one for Argento completists, but in my opinion the extras on this disk are far, far, better than the film itself.
Review by Paul Bird
|Released by Arrow Video|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|