When you hear the phrase “poker face,” you might get a certain pop song stuck in your head, or you might conjure up an image of stoicism, unreadability — the kind of expression that helps a gambler take home the pot.
Russell Crowe is adept at such masculine impassiveness. Even when bellowing about revenge as Javert in “Les Misérables” or coming undone in “A Beautiful Mind,” he has a solidness to him. Unfortunately, while solidity can be beneficial — as in dependable, trusty — it can also be boring. Such is the downfall of “Poker Face,” a new feature written and directed by, and starring, Crowe.
Crowe’s first screenplay, from a story by Stephen M. Coates, follows Jake Foley (Crowe), an Aussie rogue who, along with his best friend Andrew (played by RZA), leveraged his teenage poker skills into the first online poker enterprise. As a result, Jake is insanely wealthy. After a spiritual consultation with a guru and some hallucinogens, he arranges a reunion with his other three childhood friends: Alex (Aden Young, “I, Frankenstein”), Mike (Liam Hemsworth, “The Hunger Games”), and Paul (Steve Bastoni, “The Matrix Reloaded”).
There seems to be something sinister afoot, as Jake gets his affairs in order with his squirrelly lawyer Sam (Daniel McPherson, “Foundation”) and obtains a lethal amount of poison. Jake’s daughter Becky (Molly Grace, “To All the Boys: Always and Forever”) and second wife Nicole (Brooke Satchwell, “Thor: Love and Thunder”) have apparently not been clued into his plans. But Jake isn’t the only one with something up his sleeve. As Mike, Paul, and Alex descend upon his impressive estate, it seems they, too, all have dark secrets to share.
That may seem like enough intrigue to keep this 94-minute thriller afoot, but because it skimps on characterization, “Poker Face” fails to up the ante. A scant flashback to Jake’s teenhood opens the film and introduces his friends (and the film’s main villain), but it tells us nothing about where Jake comes from, what kind of person he is. What was his upbringing like? How did he become so good at poker? Who cares! The man has so many Rolexes he organizes them in a little booklet, so many cars he doles them out to his friends.
Every other character gets a similarly cynical treatment. Paul is a politician, Mike is the alcoholic odd-one-out, and Alex is…there. Jake’s wife and daughter likewise do not exist beyond those roles; in fact, these actresses are arguably interchangeable. (It might even be easy, at first, for viewers to mistake Becky for Jake’s wife. She is introduced mid-kickboxing session, sweaty and half-naked, and shares some uncomfortably tense eye contact with her father.) It’s hardly new to see women matter so little to the plot of an action movie, but the indifference on display “Poker Face” is so brazen it’s almost impressive.
To be fair, though, this is equal-opportunity shallow characterization. The best reprieve comes in the form of a flamboyant criminal named Styx, played by Benedict Hardie (“Hacksaw Ridge”). His slavish devotion to Cézanne and Charles Condor offer a much-needed break from all the one-note manliness. He is also, oddly, the only character with much of a conscience.
Despite the title, there isn’t even much poker to enjoy here. Jake rounds up the boys for one final game, but it ends suddenly and anticlimactically. Perhaps that’s because the conceit of this film — without giving away spoilers — is basically, “Maybe the real gambling fortune was the friends we made along the way.” If that sounds bizarrely pat for a crime thriller, that’s because it is. Potential conflicts are easily set up and dashed away, like the film’s visual motif of waves lapping against a shore. Nothing in it really matters.
By making such a bloodless action film, Crowe certainly aims at subversion. The issue is not that he privileges friendship over violence; it’s that he does so artlessly. (The best action movies are either surprisingly earnest or so slick and stylish that the humans cease to matter. One cannot attempt both.) “Poker Face” would have to forgo its own machismo, and mind-numbing script, to make viewers really care about any of these relationships. Heartfelt, well-plotted connection is at the center of some of the best crime thrillers. We don’t care about John Wick just because he’s a killing machine; we love him because he loves his dog.
“Poker Face” is a title to be taken literally. This is a film that is reluctant to reveal its hand — not because it’s waiting to blow competitors and viewers away, but because it doesn’t want anyone to see just how little it has to offer. Crowe’s acting is fine, but he hasn’t done himself any favors with his by-the-book direction or paltry script. If you’re into fast cars and pretty women, just watch a Bond movie instead.
“Poker Face” opens in US theaters Nov. 16 and on demand Nov. 22 via Screen Media.