The Card Player

A winning hand

This 2004 Italian thriller represents both a step forward and a return to form for writer/director Dario Argento. In recent years, fans of the Poe of Cinema have been wanting him to return to the kind of giallo thrillers with which he first made his mark, and with his last couple of features he’s been getting ever closer. Here he again incorporates a Black Gloved Killer in a puzzle of murder and mayhem, but he updates the setting to take advantage of modern technology, while exploring the public’s recent fascination with forensic investigation.

Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca, who starred in a Dracula TV miniseries a couple years ago) is a Rome police detective assigned to a new that employs a lot of computers. While trying to trace a missing person, she receives a mysterious email from someone claiming to have abducted the young woman they’re looking for. He challenges the police to a video poker game in a secure online chat room, with his captive’s life as the prize. Although the game includes a webcam focused on the victim for proof, Anna’s boss refuses to let them play, and the woman’s throat is slit while they watch.

While running down clues, Anna gravitates toward a new team member, stereotypical hard-drinking Irish cop John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), and the two eventually become lovers. Meanwhile, the killer strikes again and again. Anna and John find a teenager adept at video poker to play for them, and he eventually wins a game, saving the life of the chief’s daughter. But this victory only seems to enrage the killer more, and he strikes again even closer to his pursuers.

Card Player out-grosses shows like CSI when it comes to disgusting autopsy footage, with the Italian f/x artists delivering some truly gruesome remains, but the comparative lack of blood in the murder scenes may disappoint some fans. This is a more mature Argento at work, and though the film is visually interesting and has a competent score by Claudio Simonetti, the filmmakers aren’t out to draw too much attention to themselves with a lot of grandstanding. Argento focuses on his story and characters, drawing you in and building tension.

Past Argento films suffered from awkward dubbing, but he sidesteps that problem somewhat by filming in sync, with only some minor characters dubbed in. This replaces the awkward dubbing with awkward English from some of the Italian cast, and one may wonder why the Rome polizia all speak English, but it’s an improvement over unconvincing dubbing. This is especially important to the lead performances. Cunningham is solid as the flawed sidekick, but the spotlight is on an excellent performance from Rocca. She’s not one of the doe-eyed teens that Argento so often uses as his heroines – one can’t help but think of daughter Asia’s too-young detective of Stendahl Syndrome – and she makes Anna strong and experienced enough to be believable, but complex enough to be vulnerable.

Argento’s still not back to the creative level of his Suspiria or Deep Red, but Card Player is an entertaining exercise that shows he’s not wasting his time either.

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