I’ll never profess to being a Jason Statham “fan,” but there’s something I find strangely likable about this earthiest of action heroes. It’s almost as if his lack of star charisma actually makes him charismatic in a working-man sense. I found myself kind of enjoying his last solo vehicle, Homefront (2013), and once again find myself kind of enjoying his new one, Wild Card, although the movie is ultimately let down by both Statham’s lack of range and its own lack of a decent budget.It’s not that the British actor isn’t trying: Wild Card feels like an attempt by Statham to dig a little deeper into his standard anti-hero character, and that does come across to some degree thanks to the involvement of legendary screenwriter William Goldman, who knows a thing or two about anti-heroes (look him up, please, if you are not familiar with the man’s work). It also helps that the script is based on his own novel, Heat (also the basis of a disastrous 1986 Burt Reynolds film of the same name). Statham plays Nick Wild, a freelance security guard and occasional enforcer who works in Sin City and has a little addiction problem when it comes to the casinos. When a rich thug (Milo Ventimiglia) and his two bodyguards beat up a call girl (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) who happens to be a friend of Nick’s, and perhaps once something more, she calls on him to help enact her nasty revenge.
It turns out, however, that the thug is the son of a powerful mob boss, so it’s not very long before Nick has to contend with a small army of goons coming to seek revenge. At the same time he’s also dealing with Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano), an incredibly young and astonishingly wealthy tech entrepreneur who wants Nick’s help with his own social skills but soon wants to aid the former soldier of fortune in getting out of Vegas once and for all.
There are two things that stand out about Wild Card: the long string of cameos (from folks like Anne Heche, Jason Alexander and Sofia Vergara) that take quirky little side characters created by Goldman and breathe a little extra life into them. Best of all are Hope Davis as Cassandra, Nick’s sympathetic friend who also happens to be a blackjack dealer (and thus an agent of his downfall), and Stanley Tucci as Baby, owner of the casino where Ventimiglia and his hoodlums first collide with Nick. You can never go wrong with Tucci and this time, he skirts a fine line of near-camp as he presides over a sort of underworld trial in the basement of his hotel. Like John Wick and some other recent films that do a little world-building, Wild Card does play around with hinting at a completely separate, criminal society that lurks just behind the glitzy, faux-decadent surface of Vegas and the slack-eyed tourists shuffling across it.
The second thing that stands out is an extended, tense sequence in which Nick, while waiting for the mobsters to arrive, goes on a hot streak at the table and jacks his winnings up to $500,000 at one point. Like a classic gambling addict, Nick sees his good fortune as his ticket out of the life he currently leads, only to find himself helpless to stop. With its rollercoaster emotions and real suspense, this one scene is more compelling than the entirety of Mark Wahlberg’s nihilistic, joyless sessions in last year’s remake of The Gambler.
As I noted earlier, you can almost feel Statham reaching for something more in this scene and others, but he’s only capable of so much: this is a guy, after all, who’s been called upon to use his fists more than his emotions in the 30-odd films he’s made since debuting in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels back in 1998. But I will give him points for the attempt, and for making Nick a somewhat more substantial portrayal than a lot of the work I’ve seen him do before.
The rest of the film proceeds in more predictable fashion. The subplot with Angarano has a jarring tone that clashes with the more serious crime elements, and even Goldman succumbs to the recent trend of setting every action thriller around the Christmas holidays for no apparent reason. The movie loses steam almost entirely in the third act as the lack of money becomes more apparent: with two or three previous fight scenes already on the books, we’re led to expect a larger, more epic confrontation for the grand finale, but instead we get Statham jumping five guys next to a dumpster in back of a diner.
Simon West (Con Air, The Expendables 2), that most generic of action directors, handles everything here in steady, unremarkable fashion. He adds a touch of style here and there but never gets in the way of the story such as it is. Although Wild Card eventually builds to a disappointing conclusion, I found myself rooting for Nick and interested in his predicament (and the world around him) for two-thirds or so of the movie. In gambling terms, I’d say I broke even.
Wild Card is out in theaters and on VOD Friday, January 30.