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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Shade Movie Review
For my short-attention span readers, I'll give a quick 2 cents before getting into a detailed review: If you enjoy poker, you'll probably enjoy Shade quite a bit. That's not to say that it's a very good movie. In fact, most people would say it's a very bad movie. But it's a pretty fun bad movie, especially for poker people.

Now onto my full review. I've tried not to give anything away, but if you hate knowing anything at all about a movie before seeing it, then of course you should skip this post entirely.

The Poker Movie That Somehow Missed the Poker Craze

Back on April 9, I posted about a movie called Shade that stars Sylvester Stallone and Gabriel Byrne and is ostensibly about poker. At the time I hoped the movie might do well, reasoning that poker is huge right now and the it might still be in its limited-release run during the World Series of Poker. I was mostly interested in Shade's box office potential because I enjoy managing a portfolio of fake money investments on the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

Well, the movie went nowhere and I lost 200,000 fake dollars on HSX. I remained perplexed. How could a movie about gangsters and poker, featuring half a dozen reasonably well-known actors, not take in at least as much as that movie where the guy eats McDonald's for a month and (surprise surprise) gets fat?

Today we received Shade from Netflix and I got to find out. The main problem is that this is not really a poker movie. It's more of an homage to The Hustler and its poker cousin, The Cincinnati Kid, with lots of stuff borrowed from con movies like House of Games and The Grifters. If you've seen Confidence, imagine that movie with poker and card tricks thrown in. If I was judging the film as most film critics would, I guess I'd say that it doesn't know what it wants to be and it has too many things going on at once.

But I'm reviewing this movie from a poker player's perspective -- and Shade is at least enough about poker that Jamie Foxx's first line in the movie is "all in."

Gabriel Byrne, Stuart Townsend, and Thandie Newton (from Mission Impossible 2) play con artists who specialize in rigged poker games. Townsend plays "the mechanic" and can do amazing things with a deck of cards. Sylvester Stallone plays "The Dean" -- the Minnesota Fats/Lancey Howard of the film. (For readers who don't know, I play as LanceyH on several poker sites.)

"The Dean" is the best there is -- but he's not a "good poker player" in the way you think.. Turns out he's a legendary mechanic. Marked cards, bottom-dealing, that kind of thing. In the world of Shade, winning at poker is primarily about cheating. This will no doubt upset many poker players who are hoping to see a poker movie. Consider yourself warned.

I won't try to summarize the plot -- there's plenty of twists and turns, some predictable, some not so much, and they're a very fun part of the film. Another fun part is the over-the-top (read: bad) dialogue. Early on a corrupt cop (named Scarne in an inside joke) who's shaking down the con artists says "When I want your opinion, I will dial your fucking asshole." Shakespeare it ain't -- Coen Brothers it ain't, even though Byrne's character reminded me a little of Tom from Miller's Crossing. Fans of gambling movies may also enjoy pointing out which scenes seem to be stolen straight out of other movies.

Ultimately the film's central premise is funny after a while. There's a big build-up, with Townsend's character wanting to sit down with The Dean, a famous card cheat. In the climactic scene, they square off at the poker table, trying to out-maneuver each other with different ways of cheating. Despite or because of that slightly absurd undertone, the climactic scene was a lot of fun to watch. It's also helped by Stallone's performance -- he's a fun actor to make fun of but in this film he steals every scene he's in. Not to mention Michael Dorn (Worf!).

There are enough over-the-top scenes that by the end of the film I decided I was laughing with the movie rather than at it. That is, I think the filmmakers must have known how cliched a lot of the movie was. But I think the tongue-in-cheek element isn't nearly overt enough for most viewers to catch -- or be amused by. And that means box office poison.

One really cool part of the movie is the card tricks. The opening and closing credits appear over two disembodied hands that are doing amazing tricks for the camera, and during the movie Stuart Townsend does several cool deck-stacking tricks. Those tricks are filmed all in one shot, just like the shots of Paul Newman and Tom Cruise doing trick pool shots in The Hustler and The Color of Money. In one of the DVD featurettes writer/director Damian Neiman confirmed that he was stealing from/paying tribute to those movies more than anything else.

Speaking of that featurette, it shed a lot of light on how this movie got made. Neiman is a himself a "cardman," which is evidently the term for a magician who specializes in card tricks. In the featurette he and his peers do a bunch of tricks, and the featurette is as much fun as the movie. I got the feeling that this movie got made mostly because he was able to sell the idea of a "card-trick-poker-Hustler-remake" to the film's producers and cast.

Oh, and the featurette addresses another thing about the movie that will drive many poker players crazy. In two different scenes in the movie, the whole concept of table stakes is thrown out the window, with raisers threatening to "buy the pot" unless shorter-stacked players borrow enough money to call. In the featurette, Neiman says outright that he is fully aware of the concept of table stakes, that he knew those two scenes would send poker players into fits, but that he wanted to add drama to the story and pay homage to films like The Cincinnatti Kid and A Big Hand for the Little Lady. That comment more than anything proves that this movie, while entertaining, is a little too self-aware for its own good.

The bottom line remains, this is a movie with poker and gangsters -- you know you're going to rent it or at least catch it on Sunday afternoon cable sooner or later :) Have a beer in hand to prepare for tongue in cheek, and enjoy how good a bad movie can be.

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