Film review

Wagers Of Fear

DIRECTED BY Wayne Kramer

STARRING William H Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Ron Livingston

Opens June 18, Cert 15, 101 mins

No-one plays downtrodden losers better than Uncut favourite William H Macy, and this dark Vegas fable from South African writer/director Wayne Kramer hands him the biggest loser of his career. Macy's Bernie Lootz is the king of fuck-ups, cursed with the worst luck of all time. Which is just as well, because Bernie is employed as a "cooler" by satanic gambling boss Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin). Lootz roams the playing tables of Shelly's beleaguered casino, The Shangri-La, passing on this bad luck to every high-roller he rubs up against. That is, until he falls in love with sassy cocktail waitress Natalie (Bello) and his gift for calamity deserts him, to Shelly's considerable displeasure. Shelly has enough on his plate without worrying about Bernie's unacceptable streak of good fortune—his mob paymasters have brought in slick moneyman Larry Sokolov (Livingston) to redevelop The Shangri-La into a casino-cum-holiday resort, replete with theme rides and children's attractions. Soon, both men are battling with their neon-lit destiny: Bernie attempts to escape Shelly's monstrous patronage while Shelly wrestles to keep his old-school casino dream intact.

Macy hits a career high here. No matter how bad it gets for Bernie, the tenor of his performance means that the audience never loses hope—we're willing him to succeed. He's perfectly complemented by Bello as his damaged-yet-spirited love interest. Bello is by far the best tough-as-nails actress currently working in Hollywood. As with her criminally overlooked performance in Mel Gibson's Payback, she contributes an undercurrent of raw emotional need to Natalie's outwardly hard-bitten demeanour. Her graphic love scenes with Macy are refreshingly fearless and 'real' in a way that mainstream Hollywood usually avoids. There's no faux-erotic Zalman King gloss on show here—just the awkward, uncomfortable reality of two battle-scarred souls finding each other and falling in love.

Band Of Brothers alumnus Livingston is suitably reptilian as Shelly's corporate ladder-climbing nemesis, while hollow-cheeked ex-marine (and mob movie stalwart) Arthur J Nascarella excels as Shelly's seemingly more rational and sympathetic boss, Nicky "Fingers" Bonnatto. That is, until we see him beating seven shades out of a big-mouthed redneck on the floor of The Shangri-La. In Kramer's script (co-written with Scottish gambling expert Frank Hannah), there are no civilised men running the Vegas money palaces, just different types of monster.

Which brings us to Alec Baldwin, quite rightly Oscar-nominated for his blistering performance here. In a film full of sharp-suited, larger-than-life monsters, Baldwin is the undisputed daddy. His evil, bullying Shelly dominates the screen from the moment he bludgeons his way into focus with a growling Mamet-style rant. Spearing underlings with his psychotic piercing gaze, shooting ageing crooners full of smack and doling out savage beatings left, right and centre, this is the kind of deranged, magnificent role that Baldwin was born to play.

South African Kramer's US feature debut is a brilliant character piece doubling as a visceral tribute to the mythic Las Vegas of countless hardboiled B-movies. Set amid the vintage casinos of Fremont Street rather than the kitsch-heavy gambling theme parks of the Strip, The Cooler peels back the layers of Sin City's rotten underbelly, vividly capturing the hypnotic menace of a corrupt town that won't set Bernie and Shelly free. Kramer's plot is heavy on improbable, credulity stretching incident that serves to enhance his vision of Vegas as a velvet-draped Twilight Zone in which anything can happen, most of it bad. Forget the squeaky-clean desert paradise on show every week in CSI and James Caan's tourist-board-friendly Sky One drama—this is Vegas as it should be.

Rating: 4 / 10


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