Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), protagonist of Croupier is a gambler. Not the usual type of gambler -- he refuses all games of chance regardless of their stakes -- but a gambler with his life. He wants to become a novelist, and, in search of a subject, becomes a croupier (a person in charge of a gambling table, who rakes in and takes out the money) in a second-rate London casino.
What for other people might be simply a job is, for Jack, its own type of game-of-chance, for he is the son of a South African gambler, was literally born in a casino, and, the film hints, once upon a time had his own problems with gambling addiction.
Nevertheless, when his father (Nicholas Ball) calls him from South Africa and tells him about the croupier's job, Jack succumbs and returns to "the house of addiction" as he terms it. Once there, he shows his stuff -- incredible dexterity with cards, tremendous insight into the "punters" or players, and a cool, almost hypnotic reserve that he tries to bring into the rest of his life. As croupier he believes himself at the center of the game, untouched by the odds.
Inexorably, though, the casino creeps into the rest of Jack's world, and his quiet existence in a basement London flat is turned upside down. Jack begins calculating all of the odds in every action, every move, every thought. He has once again become a gambler.
The result is a surprising, cool, unpredictable thriller, British style. There are no guns, little graphic violence; but, for all that, I found myself on the edge of my seat wondering if Jack, and his fictional alter-ego Jake, could make it through intact. As the plot thickens, Clive Owen pulls off a terrific performance, suave and reserved in the best British style, yet clearly on the edge from the effort of keeping it all together.
Director Mike Hodges (Get Carter, The Terminal Man, and Flash Gordon to name only a few films in a 30-year career) goes to great lengths to reconstruct the slightly shoddy world of London casinos, as well as their strange rituals and conventions, and manages to make that subculture remarkably real. The screenplay by Paul Mayersberg (Man Who Fell to Earth, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, among others) is taut, smart and suspenseful. In other words, the movie is all-around good.
Croupier has gotten little U.S. distribution, and unfortunately garnered only seven days of screen time in Colorado Springs. Today is your last chance to see it, so take the gamble -- the odds are in your favor.