Il Cartaio [The Card Player] (2004)

I’ve heard nasty, awful, bad, terrible things about Dario Argento’s work after the 80s, or at least from sometime in the 90s onward and generally avoided most (if not all) of it as a result. I jumped from classics like Suspiria and Profondo Rosso straight to his recent episodes of Masters of Horror, and could definitely tell something had changed, and something was very incongruous if one set those up next to his elderly works. They were, while entertaining enough, nothing that pushed me to change my stance on viewing Argento’s other recent work. Considering opinions tended toward the negative pretty consistently, I stayed away. However, I stumbled across a copy of this film terribly cheap and figured–hey, what the heck, right? Four bucks? Why not?

As per usual, it should be noted in advance that, yes, this is an Italian film, and yes it’s dubbed. Period. It does appear that almost everyone in the film is/was speaking English on set for once (instead of the maddening mishmash of 70s films, where everyone spoke their native tongue), but it’s still clearly dubbed all around. This can be a little distracting, and will certainly induce laughs on the parts of audiences that cannot use cultural context to suspend disbelief, or experience Argento films more as a visual or atmospherically driven work than a standard plot-driven one. However, this time we are driven by plot. This is one of the many films referenced when people decry the complete lack of originality in a recent film titled Untraceable (which actually bears its strongest resemblance to the Mllennium episode entitled “The Mikado”). Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) is an Italian policewoman (Dario likes his police and likes his heroines, so no big shock here) who is sent an unexpected e-mail asking her to join a mysterious stranger in a game of online poker, claiming he has a recently kidnapped British tourist tied up and that he will kill her. Her superior gets her into the poker chatroom but refuses to let her play, and they watch as the girl’s throat is slit just offscreen through a webcam. Now, of course, we have a race against time to identify the killer as he takes on more victims, using (of course) an untraceable signal sent through routers, spoofed IPs and so on (thankfully decent as techspeak goes for this film, as it can be ruinous when they use all real terms to those of us who know things about computers and know that these terms are either irrelevant or easily defeated–though I admit I snuck in the spoofing bit myself…). A British (Irish, specifically, and yes, I’m pretty sure the British half of Ireland) detective named John (Liam Cunningham) who is disgusted by the death of the girl appears to try to bring more proactive action to the investigation–and of course to begin a romance with Anna.

The plot is nothing overly surprising–though, as I’ve noted before, Argento has never been about plot, but this time that approach doesn’t work. What also doesn’t work are attempts to draw us into the “drama” of these card scenes, which don’t seem to have the drama or suspense that they should. There is some occasionally, and that’s really the best phrase to apply to the film–“there’s some occasionally.” There are some rather cold, uncomfortable forensic investigations of the bloated, rotten corpses of the victims (yes, the image that gives you is about right) and a few quite suspenseful chase scenes, as well as a few shocking setpieces and deaths. When one of the victims manages to wrestle her way loose on camera, that was quite effective, too. But overall something is just not clicking–and I suspect this is mostly the result of Argento dabbling in an area that doesn’t work with his approach to film.

Probably the most disappointing of all, though, was the score Claudio Simonetti (keyboardist for Goblin!) put together for the film. Apparently he had been hanging out at a bunch of raves around this time, with insistent “oomp oomp” beats and almost Squarepusher-like acid percussion (though not quite so intricate, and a little cheesier) driving the great majority, with only glimpses of his knack for ominous melody appearing every so often.

Overall, a disappointment, but one I was somewhat prepared for. Not total garbage, but pretty heavily flawed.

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