Dir: Dario Argento. Italy. 2003. 107mins.
Italian horror-maestro Dario Argento will alienate many of his loyal cult followers with this surprisingly conventional ripper-flick, which revolves around a serial killer's challenge to police investigators to play online video-poker if they want to save the life of his trussed and webcammed victims. But Italian producer and distributor Medusa, which gave the film a 220-screen roll-out on Jan 2, is more interested in today's cinemagoing masses than the ultra-niche market of diehard Argento fans - those who know The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) or Deep Red (1975) frame by frame.
The film's respectable opening weekend placing (fifth overall with Euros 874,371, well ahead of the other main opener, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over ) also suggests that Argento-lite is no turn-off for young Italians, who are drawn as much by the attraction of three of Italy's most bankable young actors (Stefania Rocca, Claudio Santamaria and Silvio Muccino) as they are by the name of the director. These days, the high-profile one in the Argento family is Dario's actress daughter Asia - who was originally slated for the role of the police inspector played by Rocca in this film.
Medusa's sense of timing (as the Xmas blockbusters begin to wane but before the 16 Jan release of The Return Of The King), together with a relatively high-profile cast and Argento's continued cornering of the Italian horror market will ensure decent domestic results, but The Card Player will fade fast from week three onwards.
International prospects look decidedly shaky, despite the fact that, as with all Argento's recent films, it is shot in English. Its most obvious route is straight to video/DVD with horror and cult movie specialists such as Anchor Bay Entertainment in the US.
Argento has always been more interested in delirious set pieces and twisted visual fantasy than little details like plot and dialogue. But when his visual style is muted, as it is here, the far-fetched plot segues and the frankly embarrassing lines some of the actors are fed stand out like severed fingers on a dinner plate. Police computer experts spout sentences like 'It's encrypted! He's hiding behind a firewall!'.
Anna, Rocca's sexy police inspector, tells her hard-drinking Irish colleague John (Liam Cunningham) that her aversion to gambling probably derives from the fact that her father threw himself under a train to escape from his poker debts - before delivering the hoary old line 'I don't know why I'm telling you all this'.
It is Rocca, though - plain, scrubbed and unglamorous for once - who holds the fragile edifice together, slipping into the genre exercise with real gusto and even managing to give her character some depth as she modulates between hard, she-cop self-possession, amorous tenderness and the wide-eyed fright of the hunted deer.
Liam Cunningham keeps his head above water as her love interest, a hard-bitten Irish cop (Northern Irish, we assume - the script doesn't stretch to such geopolitical subtleties) imposed on the Roman investigation squad because the Card Player's first victim is British.
Unusually for Argento, the murders are accomplished with very little gore; the only real squirms come when the corpses of two of the victims - rendered in hyper-real, dissecting-room detail by Argento's faithful FX sidekick Sergio Stivaletti - have their orifices searched for evidence. And with the exception of a genuinely tense hidden-intruder scene set in Anna's Roman apartment, there isn't much thrilling psycho-drama to make up for the tomato-sauce drought. The Eternal City's potential for Baroque menace and contemporary squalor is exploited only fitfully by cinematographer Debie Benoit, who is mainly content to film in flat, TV-detective style.
Still, there are one or two nice Argento touches - a tap-dancing, opera-singing morgue assistant, a police chief cadging a cigarette in the corridor like an expectant father while his team play video poker for the life of the latest screaming webcam victim - and the whole thing moves along with a certain ramshackle charm before blowing it completely in the final five minutes. No spoilers here: suffice to say that the ending is so absurd and has such a feel of having been cobbled together at the last moment that it turns the audience's indulgence to annoyance and has a decent thespian like Claudio Santamaria acting like a Christmas pantomine amateur.
Production cos: Medusa Film, Opera Film
Producers: Claudio Argento, Dario Argento
Italian dist: Medusa
International sales: Adriana Chiesa Enterprises
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini
Cinematography: Debie Benoit
Editor: Walter Fasano
Production designer: Antonello Geleng
Main cast: Stefano Rocca, Liam Cunningham, Silvio Muccino, Claudio Santamaria