With the opening this weekend of 21, about six MIT mathletes who broke the Vegas blackjack bank in the 1990s through savvy card counting, I can’t help but think of the great gambling movies — 21
Like I said, John Dahl’s cult movie gets me every time, especially John Malkovich as the mad Russian Teddy KGB, who takes Damon’s law student for $30,000 in tuition at the poker table. Munching Oreo cookies, splashing the pot with chips (a poker no-no) and speaking with an accent that defies deciphering (“Ho-kay, Meester sum of a beech”), Malkovich soars so far over the top, he’s passing Pluto. I love it.
CALIFORNIA SPLIT 1974
Even with the legendary Robert Altman in the director’s chair, this gem about the compulsion to gamble never found its rightful high place in the Altman canon. George Segal and Elliot Gould are in top form in a film that examines the underside of a winning streak in Reno. The dialogue is pitch perfect. Gould to a casino cashier: “I’d like a thousand dollars’ worth of credit” — short pause — “Tell you what, just give me a roll of nickels.”
THE COOLER 2003
Wayne Kramer ‘s smashing directing debut deserved a lot more attention. William H. Macy is superb as a Vegas gambler with a knack for losing. His casino-manager pal (Alec Baldwin, revelatory in an Oscar nominated role) hires him as a cooler, a “piece of walking Kryptonite” who can jinx a high roller just by sitting next to him. Then love in the person of the glorious Maria Bello enters the picture and his bad luck changes. Or does it?
Mike Hodges set this low-budget mindbender in a London casino. Clive Owen excels as a wannabe writer who takes a job as a croupier. He’s grown up around betting tables and sees his job as a chance to observe people as subjects for his novel. The job appeals to Jack’s need for control and emotional distance. He gets to watch the suckers play at life and risk losing. And so do we, with mounting fascination.
Martin Scorsese’s 17th film rarely gets any love, many wrongly consider it a lesser sequel to GoodFellas. But there’s no better film about the business of gambling. And as Robert De Niro runs his Vegas casino, the audience gets to follow the money with a documentary realism that brings out Scorsese’ genius for obsession.