Dario Argento holds a firm spot in the top-5 best horror directors ever. If not a torch bearer for the entire international horror genre, he certainly represents the upper echelon of Italian horror cinema. One finds it impossible to have a serious dialog concerning the history of giallo cinema with out uttering his name more than once. With such a resume, it’s hard to imagine a major misfire, but even the greatest of titans eventually stumble. Dario Argento’s The Card Player (2004) exemplifies stumble from the heights of horror greatness.
Supposedly, this film intended to be the sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and also star Dario’s daughter, Asia Argento. Plans changed when Asia chose not to be involved with the film. We will be paying The Stendhal Syndrome in short order.
The Plot – Aces Over Kings
As we will explain, The Card Player suffers from many problems. However, a great plot is not one of them. The story begins with a psychopathic killer that kidnaps female victims. Once he has them, he challenges the police department to a game of Internet Poker, best out of 3. If the police win, he lets the woman go. If not, he carves the victim to ribbons while they watch helplessly on the other side of computer monitor. At first he targets tourists, but eventually his targets hit closer to home. Things boil to a head when the killer abducts the daughter of the police chief.
Stefania Rocca plays the lead role of Anna Mari, a poor man’s Clarice Starling. She finds herself both hunting the killer and also playing victim at other times. Liam Cunningham plays visiting Detective John Brennan. Together they work to unravel the mystery of the gambling serial killer. They are aided by the socially awkward Inspector, Carlo Sturni, played by Claudio Santamaria.
For having a blockbuster plot, Argento’s film could not have been more poorly executed. Fans of Argento’s work feel much more pain as they expect more from such a legendary director. Those familiar with Argento’s work immediately call out his penchant for style, both musically and visually. This film literally has no style at all. It couldn’t be more bland and boilerplate if it tried. Stefania Rocca plays the role of Anna Mari competently, but dull and uninteresting. Liam Cunningham, who would later gain fame as Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones, does his best with the terminally tiresome detective cliché of the abrasive maverick brought in from another department to shake things up.
In the end, it feels like Argento tries to create a U.S. style 90’s detective thriller like Kiss the Girls (1997) or SE7EN (1995). He unfortunately forgets that these films, while having an interesting plot, are mostly character driven. Had Argento replaced the lackluster performance of Stefania Rocca with the sexy competence of Sandra Bullock as Detective Cassie Mayweather in Murder By Numbers (2002), he may have pulled this off. However, invoking a name of Sandra Bullock may be unfair considering the massive budget gap between the two films. Regardless, failure began when Argento believed that his wiz-bang plot could carry this film by itself.
The sub-par acting goes supersonic when Argento finally unleashes the killers identity. It leads to a brutal interchange between Anna Mari and the killer as they shackle each other to a computer to play a final game of computer poker… to the death. The scene tries to build tension, but overall feel contrived and ridiculous. A feeling of relief spills forth when that little battle gets resolved because, thankfully, it’s over.
Surprisingly, Claudio Simonetti produces a totally benign soundtrack for this one. It’ suitably supports the film, and is not horrible. It’s just not what we are used to from a master composer.
Please Do Not Confuse With Giallo
To be as succinct as possible, The Card Player is not a giallo film; full stop. We only mention this because more than once our research revealed references that suggested as much. The key difference that we see with this film is that the tale is told strictly through the eyes of the police department. In a pure giallo film, the narrative surrounds the victim, often an outsider. Police may show their faces, but their role simply helps advance the plot by revealing clues and answering questions. Malevolent Dark invests a lot of time in reviewing giallo films, so we take this distinction seriously.
The Card Player presents more of a police procedural in line with the likes of Dirty Harry or any of the other aforementioned U.S. detective thrillers.
Somewhat out of character, Dario Argento relies much less on special effects for this film. Apart from a well done corpse here and there, Argento implies much of the violence. For better or worse, some of the computer technology looks appropriately out of date. Propped up by exceedingly corny lines from the law-enforcement IT staff, it all feels woefully authentic. The film even features some computer generated effects, albeit poorly done. The lack of gore and special effects is not a sin by itself, but in this case it contributes to an otherwise lackluster and lifeless movie.
The Flop, The Turn, The River
It may be easily apparent that Malevolent Dark’s opinion of The Card Player is not very high. While this is true, it’s difficult not to judge this film in the shadow of its predecessors. Considering this film sits in the same portfolio as Suspiria (1977), Tenebre (1982) and Deep Red (1975) it absolutley disappoints. When we step outside of the shadow of his great films, The Card Player does just ok. Still, would we have ever taken it off the shelf without Dario Argento’s name on the box? Not likely.
At the same time, we try to appreciate that Argento wants to avoid being wedged into a specific style for every film he directs. However, it becomes problematic when an abyss of style combines with other uninspiring bits to create a wholly insipid affair. For reference, Malevolent Dark gave the same criticism to Lucio Fulci for his 1982 sleaze extravaganza The New York Ripper (1982). Just saying, fair’s fair.
Dario Argento completists will want to see this one, if only to understand what could have been done with his fantastic plotline. At Malevolent Dark, we fully support the mania of Dario Argento completists! But, for everyone else, they can let The Card Player slip by and with confidence that they will not miss out on a classic.
The Card Player (2004) - A Rotten Hand - Malevolent Dark
Director: Dario Argento
Date Created: 2004-01-01 01:00