Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Card Player (Il cartaio) 2004

What if no higher force such as God or Karma has its hand on the tiller of the ship of life, and our existence may be snuffed out by something as random as the turn of a card? The thought is not a comforting one, and it is this idea that is at the heart of Dario Argento's The Card Player. However, a messy and rather silly script coupled with too few of the director's trademark stylistic flourishes, leaves us with a failed attempt by the one-time master of the Giallo genre to reinvent himself for the cyber age.

Someone is kidnapping women in Rome and forcing the police to play internet poker for the lives of his victims, all the time showing their fate in gruesome close-up via a webcam. A detective, whose father was a gambling addict, teams up with a forensic scientist and a card shark to catch him. However, is the killer a lot closer to home than they realise?

Dario Argento is in one respect very much like Woody Allen, who having made his breakthrough in the 60s, and his bona fide classics in the 70s is subsequently seeing everything new he produces compared to this earlier body of work, understandably, perhaps, given the impact that work had.

The Card Player contains some familiar tropes from Argento's previous films, such as a black gloved killer, women in peril, cod Freudian pop psychology, some odd camera angles, plot twists that are slightly too convenient, and forcing people to voyeuristically watch murder, but it also represents an attempt to give the Giallo genre a 21st century spin. Consequently, rather than using the more familiar character of the amateur detective usually seen in Argento's murder mysteries, large sections of the film follow the "police procedural" style seen in TV shows such as the CSI franchise, with the focus on forensic examinations of the crime scene and the corpses.

In addition, the elaborate, highly stylised, murder scenes have been jettisoned in favour of webcam footage of the victims being tortured and killed, which feels more reminiscent of the "torture porn" genre. While there is certainly nothing wrong with trying something new with a genre, in this case, the end result is a little unsatisfactory. With his landmark early films, Argento took an existing genre, the murder mystery, and injected it with his own brand of twisted sex and violence, as well as a distinctive cinematic style, but here it feels like a clone of modern cop shows with a few diluted elements of his own style.

The sad decline in the filmmaking standards is paralleled in the musical score, with Argento stalwart Claudio Simonetti leaving behind bombastic or creepy Prog-Rock, and instead plumping for a pounding, nervy electronic score. Thematically the hi-tech approach ties in the subject matter, but apart from sounding a little tinny and weak at times, it is so generic it could have been written by anybody.

The actors do their best with the characters they are given, but neither John Brennan (played by Liam Cunningham) or Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) are in the slightest bit original (he is burnt out, she is a female detective in a macho world) or fleshed out. Meanwhile, their boss the Police Commissioner shouts a lot, initially refuses to negotiate with the killer, and is reluctant to bring in any outside help.

This timid, disappointing, and dull film makes you long for the Argento of old, who was not afraid to take chances, and whose outrageous, and, at times, out of control films, truly felt like the stuff of nightmares.