Despite the rapid saturation of legalized gambling across this greedy nation - where Las Vegas has become the adult Disney World, America's greatest river basins the equivalent of Wal-Mart parking lots for clustered paddleboats, and urban black holes like Detroit the latest starry-eyed marks for the "gaming industry's" pitch of economic resurrection - the casino experience still evokes a sliver of debonair proficiency, at least to those of us who grew up watching the Rat Pack, James Bond, and other suave hepcats seemingly beat the odds with aplomb. As happens so often with Hollywood, the gambling life as portrayed onscreen is generally miles apart from reality (not everyone can be Rain Man), so it is refreshing to encounter a film that positively nails the persistent tenor of desperation so essential in playing games of chance. With more than a touch of detached cynicism, Croupier offers an eye-opening perspective from the other side of the betting table.
A joint European production (Britain, France, Germany), Croupier is set in and around a London casino and concerns the experiences of Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), an aspiring-yet-directionless writer who uses a family connection to get a job dealing blackjack and spinning the roulette wheel. With Jack fighting a severe case of writer's block as the film begins, this represents his last chance to avoid the dole and help his store-detective girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) out with living expenses. Never mind that the job comes to Jack through the mysterious machinations of his father (Nicholas Ball), a lifelong gambler barely sustaining his habit in Sun City, South Africa. Despite Jack's wariness about his father's intent (and, it is suggested, about Jack's own recreational past), the pay is too good to pass up and soon Jack is being tested by the casino on his croupier skills, which are impeccable. The rules are strict: no relationships with fellow croupiers outside of work, and absolutely no associating with, or even acknowledging, the "punters" (gamblers) out in the real world. But Jack's voice-over narration (used very effectively, for a change) indicates immediately that rules are made to be broken.
Croupier has a number of subtle and clever plot twists that shouldn't be spoiled, but it becomes quickly apparent that Jack's immersion into the high-stakes underworld is wreaking havoc in his life away from work. It's not the on-the-clock temptations either; Jack recognizes the allure of gambling for what it is at the core: a ruthless addiction steeped in sadomasochism that elevates continual losing into a twisted nirvana. The problem becomes, however, that Jack lets the punters' risk-taking behavior at the casino seep into the core of his own self-conception.
Three women play critical roles in Jack's descent into existential crisis: Marion, who becomes frustrated with his romantic distance and diligently tries to save their relationship; Bella (Kate Hardie), an impertinent and sexy fellow croupier who embodies the almost decadent freedom from responsibility that the casino lifestyle extends; and Jani (ER's Alex Kingston), a beautiful and seemingly knowledgeable gambler from South Africa who threatens to draw Jack into danger. Developing a reservoir of icy indifference and a disdain for humanity that would do film noir icons such as Humphrey Bogart proud, Jack at least retains enough self-awareness to realize that he is swiftly evolving into (or returning to; the movie never fully divulges) a different identity as a croupier - "Jake," as he comes to be known. Wouldn't it be great, Jack soon comes to believe, if what remains of the former Jack could somehow channel this new existence as Jake into a completed novel, maybe even a roman à clef?
One of the most impressive qualities in Paul Mayersberg's screenplay for Croupier is its development of finely-drawn supporting characters, specifically the above-mentioned females in Jack's life. All three actresses are superb, but Jack/Jake is the plum role here, and Clive Owen, in a breakout performance, perfectly captures the growing aloofness of a man who is learning to shut out all feeling. Director Mike Hodges works infrequently, and is probably best known for his gangster-film debut Get Carter (1971) and the sci-fi schlock of Flash Gordon (1980), which is to say he isn't well-known at all. Here, Hodges manages to make Jack's new life both alluring and ominous, and despite a bit of acceleration in plot resolution near the end, the director skillfully never tips his hand.
Croupier isn't a wide-canvas exposé of the inner workings and corruption of the industry like Scorsese's Casino (1995); instead, this modestly-budgeted, ingratiating film focuses on the seductive psychological appeal of the gambling mentality as it preys on one intriguing individual, and as such serves as a capable antidote to the special effects-driven summer-movie malaise.