Jason Statham is one of the most magnetic action stars of his generation, although you wouldn’t know it from the middling to mediocre line-up of moderate-budgeted releases he has headlined over the last decade. The actor’s steely cool and casual intensity is often the best part of fleeting, forgettable genre films. However, if given a meatier character or some prime dialogue to chew on, Statham shows a drive, confidence and vulnerability that his other vehicles only hint at.
It turns out that Statham needed a refreshingly low-key slice of old-school noir from veteran screenwriter William Goldman, of All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame. Wild Card is certainly not a classic near the pantheon of those films, but it is above average for a high voltage flick with Statham’s name above the marquee. Goldman adapted the lurid thriller from his novel, Heat, and the results are often thrilling, if sometimes haphazard.
The focus is on Nick Wild (Statham), a bodyguard-for-hire who has been aching to get out of the backstreets of Las Vegas. The noir-like figure wants to leave his life of gritty violence and compulsive gambling behind for a sailboat in Corsica. However, before Nick can drive away into the sunset, he has friends to visit, debts to pay, money to scrounge up and new conflicts to attend to.
Statham may be an onscreen presence known for his brusque one-liners and brutish punches, but with Goldman’s crackling dialogue, he gets to show a flare for verbal acuity. In an early scene, upon meeting gawky tech millionaire Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano, doing his best Jesse Eisenberg impression), Wild reports his rates with sophistication and parallel structure. Statham savors every good line he gets, munching around words like ‘jocular’ and ‘endeavor’ without missing a beat. It is as if the actor is channeling a wise-talking Humphrey Bogart. While doing so, Statham doesn’t shed an ounce of cool; instead, he punctuates the dialogue with class and confidence, like his cocky criminal characters from early Guy Ritchie films.
Nick and Cyrus’s quirky friendship turns into much-needed levity, as the beefy security man must deal with other problems. In a bleaker subplot, an old friend of Nick’s named Holly (Dominik García-Lorido) turns up to report that a mean moneymaker, Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia), assaulted her in his suite on the Strip. She wants revenge served cold, and Nick is her chilled glass of vengeance. Meanwhile, Nick is trying to down enough sour, self-poured shots of vodka to distract him from laying down big bets at the blackjack table.
For those looking forward to Statham’s signature beat-downs, they are still there, swift and brief. (Nick is a man who could bring a knife to a gunfight and exit unscathed.) Director Simon West sometimes pushes computer-generated mayhem into the shots a bit too frequently, but the fight sequences are crisply edited, well lit and easy to follow. The bone-cracking violence doesn’t lose its visceral energy as the camera holds on Statham, instead of flailing around, trying to capture each kick, punch and elbow to the face.
West also shows a sure eye in the film’s dramatic midpoint, where Nick goes on a tear at a blackjack table, wrestling between his own addictions and his need to escape a city of vice. The scene bounces between slick, quick cuts of the cards flipping on the table with probing the protagonist in longer takes as we try to figure out just how far he is willing to bet. Even without muttering more than a few words, Statham shows pure control portraying a man trying to figure out the limits of his control.
Wild Card is also refreshing for its lack of references to contemporary culture. The protagonist drives a classic Pontiac GT, lingers in smoky downtown Vegas lounges and returns to bed in run-down motels with washed-out paint. With the exception of the modern-day cast and the new, titanic Vegas hotels that populate the backgrounds (and a few foregrounds), one catching this film on cable could think it was from a few decades earlier. The old-school flavor, complete with a soundtrack of crooners like Dean Martin, complements the steely, sophisticated protagonist. Nick is more a concoction of Elmore Leonard or Jim Thompson’s pulp fiction than any modern movie trope.
If the film feels a bit slight, it is likely because Wild Card’s ace ensemble – including cameos from Hope Davis as a blackjack dealer, Anne Heche as a diner waitress and Stanley Tucci as a mobster with a sense of humor – hint at interesting supporting characters that get too little to do. Clocking in at just 92 minutes, Goldman’s adaptation seems to have trimmed some of the fatter subplots. However, having so many character actors drop in and leave behind very little of note to their characters feels like a big missed opportunity. Why hire so many talents if they will bring more clutter than clout to the final product?
Trimmed down to its bare essentials, many of the showdowns feel too inconsequential and the conflicts too slender to give much attention to. However, despite some of the film’s slight plotting, Statham rises to the punch of the dialogue and gives some of the best work of his career in Wild Card. It’s a magnetic, darkly funny thriller that does a solid job of blending the crackerjack talk of a noir with the greasy fists of a Jason Statham action flick.
Wild Card is a stylish throwback to 80s noir that makes fine use of its charismatic lead actor.