Being a croupier (dealer) in a London casino surprisingly turns out to be the perfect job for the struggling South African novelist who is looking for a subject and a main character for his book, in a job he at first thought would only be a secondary one. Clive Owen is Jack Manfred, the poker-faced narrator, whose voice-over not only relates what is taking place onscreen but relates how his novel is coming along. He sometimes becomes his fictional alter ego, the main character in his novel about a croupier.
Jack, the antihero of this sparkling and intelligent noir tale, is having trouble writing, so he is forced to take a job his unscrupulous father, once a notorious gambler but now a bartender still living in South Africa, gets for him. He secures for Jack this job through his connections in a London casino. Jack's father brought him up in casinos and forced his lifestyle upon him, raising him as a single-parent when his wife left. Jack loathed working as a dealer in the South African casino and moved to London with the hope that he could become a writer with the change in environment.
Why Jack refuses to gamble but enjoys being a croupier remains a mystery. The answer is only hinted at. It might be that Jack has watched his father's gambling habits make him a loser and has sworn that won't happen to him or, perhaps, Jack himself was at one time a compulsive gambler and has had a negative experience.
This is an overlooked noir thriller--shamefully it couldn't get a British film distributor to give it a wide release when it opened. It is a film from Mike Hodge, the director of the legendary Get Carter in 1971. It magnificently but in a cynical tone captures the London nocturnal after-hours club scene and how the charismatic Clive Owen was able to pull you into his thought process. Jack's character is established through his observations of the punters (gamblers) in the casino, sneeringly looking down at them as losers. Jack identifies with the casino and the casino's credo of not being in the business of gambling but in winning. Jack wants to do things in a honest way to win whether as a writer or as a croupier, who makes it a point of telling us how much he hates a cheat; yet, by a twist of fate, Jack ends up like all the other cheats. The cynical message inferred is that one can't change human nature, that sooner or later one will have to make a choice and bend the rules to accomodate who one is.
In a plot that can be faulted only for its contrived surprise ending and a death of one of the main players near the end that adds absolutely nothing to the story. Yet, what remains striking is the passion the croupier has for casino life and how it relates to his writing.
The croupier knows that he has hit nirvana when he can no longer hear the ball of the wheel as it rolls. It is beautiful to see this notion converted onto the screen, as the film is a one-man show for Clive Owen. It relates to how the tension builds inside him as he is confronted with changes in his life -- whether they are ones that might be considered trivial like being forced to ride public transport or heavier changes as how to deal with his ex-cop, current store detective, live-in girlfriend Marion (Gina); or, even heavier changes, if he should get involved in a casino scam.
Jack wavers between loving Marion as if she were his conscience or not being fully in love with her because he can't love someone who is so straight. Marion states that she only wants to live with a writer not a "fucking" croupier and always has such a sad expression, and is an open book to read. While Jack is always an enigma. How Jack deals with his life and how keenly accurate he is in describing others he meets, makes this film seem very literary.
Jack instantly becomes a favorite of casino manager David Reynolds (Alexander Morton) because he is so good at the job and because he is so trustworthy. Reynolds lectures him about the house rules and warns him about fraternizing with gamblers and with his fellow casino employees, and also tells him that he must report anyone he sees cheating or else he will lose his job.
But our antihero soon ignores those rules, first by bar-hopping with the casino's dishonest dealer Matt (Paul Reynolds) whom he will use as the protagonist in his book about a croupier (Matt suggests the theme for the book-- He tells Jack, "I wanna to fuck over the world"). Jack then has sex with another dealer (Kate Hardie), and then associates with a sexy grifter (Alex Kingston) who plays at his table on purpose, as she tries to get him to go to bed with her and go along with a plan to use him as an insider to heist the casino during Christmas.
There are a few other subplots brought up, such as him beating up men who are cheaters. But, as with the many other subplots, its theme is never fully realized.
When compared to three recent films about gambling Casino, The Rounders, and Reindeer Games, there is no comparison, this one was the more pertinent. It is only too bad that Croupier couldn't feel more committed to the power of the lyrical voice-over and less to the canned responses of all the odd twists it had to throw into the story, that diminished the bleak truth it was harping at -- of how life itself is a game of chance and the casino is only a cheap imitation of life.
In the end the film's stylish depiction of the casino milieu, its thrilling noir ambiance, and the character study of the croupier, override the film's flaws. The film only seems to lack the kind of payoff that a thriller of this magnitude warranted. It turns out that this compelling story is just as much about being a writer as it is about a croupier; the ace it has up its sleeve, being the distinguished performance by Clive Owen.