Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reliable Bet: WILD CARD


Jason Statham’s screen presence – the stubbled head of a bruiser on a body with the aerodynamic grace of an Olympic diver – is perfect action movie charisma. No wonder he’s often used for his physicality, making tightly choreographed fights look like improvised excellence. Confident and comfortable on screen, he makes every gesture seem effortless. Whether in an electric jolt like the wild and vulgar Crank or a thundering throwback men-on-a-mission picture like The Expendables or an energetic star vehicle like The Transporters, he’s a distinct star. He can execute martial arts with total professionalism, but delivers straight-faced action thrills with the faintest smirking enjoyment. His is a brutal joy, every punch (or kick, or shot, or vroom-slam-pow-kablooey) lands hard, but is fun to watch. Even (too often) when he’s in subpar material, you’ll never catch him phoning it in.

His latest effort is the essentially direct-to-VOD/DVD Wild Card, a remake of the William Goldman-scripted/Burt Reynolds-starring 1987 film Heat. With a screenplay credited to Goldman, this new picture gives Statham an opportunity to show off his underrated way with dialogue. Sure, there are flashes of action that call for bruising hand-to-hand combat. He’s great there. But he also has a sturdy, believable way of working with tangled threads of lengthy dialogue. There’s world-weariness to his wittiness, as he here stumbles through a series of episodic encounters with a variety of stellar supporting character actors.

Statham plays a freelance tough guy in the lower levels of Las Vegas crime, doing a bit of bodyguarding here, some gumshoeing there to pay for his gambling addiction. The film meanders a few days with him as he babysits a meek young techie millionaire (Michael Angarano) while helping a friend (Dominik García-Lorido) find and get revenge on a mob sicko (Milo Ventimiglia) who brutally assaulted her. Along the way, he runs into recognizable actors who turn up for a scene or two each. Anne Heche, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Sofía Vergara, Max Casella, Jason Alexander, and others turn up to color in the margins of Statham’s shady world. They trade crackling, half-charming B-movie dialogue. Every scene proves again Statham can jab just as well verbally as he can with his fists. Get him in a Mamet or a Tarantino picture and he’d steal scenes with the best of them.

Wild Card isn’t up to the standards of a Jackie Brown or Glengarry Glen Ross. Nor should it be held to those standards. It simply putters along, stuck in a low gear, with minor entertainment value from familiar crime movie scenarios strung together. Director Simon West, usually found blowing out bigger budget guilty pleasure blockbusters like Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and The Expendables 2, shoots cleanly and crisply, finding some dexterity in the small spaces and small budget to keep things slick and suspenseful amid the winding shaggy plot. But Statham’s great, and the film gives him opportunity to stretch some acting muscles he’s not always asked to utilize. There’s not much here, but it has its low-key charm.

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