The Card Player (Il Cartaio) first published – in a slightly different form – by Movie Gazette, Nov, 2004.
The Italian term giallo denotes both the colour ‘yellow’ and a lurid film genre which, like the series of sensationalist Italian crime novels whose distinctive yellow sleeves provided its name, is full of masks, murder and the macabre. While paving the way for the whole slasher genre, Italian gialli were far more baroquely intense than their American rip-offs – and although he was certainly standing on the shoulders of giants like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino, the undisputed king of giallo is Dario Argento, whose films The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Tenebrae,Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome, as well as genre hybrids like Suspiria, its sequel Inferno and Phenomena, have won him rightful acclaim as one of horror’s greatest and most influential auteurs, even if their Sadean surrealism hardly made them mainstream hits. The very latest incarnations of giallo – visceral thrillers like Se7en, Identity and Saw – still have Argento’s bloody fingerprints all over them, but his own attempts in the genre over the last decade, including The Card Player (Il Cartaio), suggest that it may be time for the king himself to surrender his throne gracefully before it is forcibly usurped.
On her birthday, police detective Anna (Stefania Rocca) receives an e-mail from an anonymous killer challenging her to a grotesque game of internet poker, with a live woman (shown bound and gagged on webcam) as the stake. Each time the police lose a hand, the abductee loses a body part, and if the police lose the whole game, she is killed. Anna’s investigative team is soon joined by John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), a disgraced British policeman now attached to the embassy in Rome, and by Remo (Silvio Muccino), a young student blessed with extraordinary gambling skills – but with few clues, and the police commissioner’s own daughter (played by Argento’s daughter Fiore) in the killer’s clutches, Anna needs to find the joker in the pack.
There are occasional flashes of Argento’s old genius in The Card Player – especially in the scene where Anna tries to evade the killer in her own apartment, or when Remo is forced to play with a loaded deck along the Tiber – but for the most part this is a mix of bland police procedural, uninteresting characters, bad dialogue, a killer whose identity you can easily guess from the very beginning, a truly laughable climax (with the heroine chained, Perils of Pauline-style, to a train track), and a completely pointless epilogue. Even the soundtrack by Argento regular Claudio ‘Goblin’ Simonetti is uncharacteristically annoying.
Argento tries to exploit the internet’s potential for anonymity to bring the masked killer of giallo right up to date, but instead just shows his age by handling the (to him apparently ‘new-fangled’) world of the web so clumsily. Even the poker matches which form the film’s core are terribly mismanaged. Argento must by necessity conceal the face of his murderous player, but in so doing he eliminates precisely what makes the game so thrilling – the bluffs and tics of a poker face. All that remains is the dull spectacle of police typing into a computer – and while Argento does have one cleverish bluff hidden up his sleeve, he does not find a way to realise it visually, instead having to resort to awkward exposition.
strap: Dario Argento’s late-era, high-stakes, subpar giallo brings a poker face to its murderous (world wide) web of intrigue