February 1, 2003
Starring: Starring: Stuart Townsend, Gabriel Byrne, Thandie Newton, Jamie Foxx, Melanie Griffith, Sylvester Stallone, Dina Merrill, Hal Holbrook, Roger G. Smith, Bo Hopkins, ,
Shade (2003) is the latest in a long tradition of grifter movies, from the likes of The Hustler (1961) and House of Games (1987). They often feature elaborate confidence games most commonly involving card games like poker or other games of chance like pool. The plots contain all kinds of twists and turns as the audience is constantly guessing who is scamming whom. Shade, like The Cinncinnati Kid (1965) and The Sting (1973) before it, involves high stakes poker as the catalyst for the con game. Shade was released quietly and in an extremely limited run last year but was actually made two years ago. With such a stellar cast it begs the question why did it take so long to finally see the light of day?
Charlie (Byrne) sets up big-time, cash-only poker games. His partner, Tiffany (Newton), helps him recruit Larry Jennings (Foxx), an ace card player and Vernon (Townsend), a fixer of games. Vernon is an expert manipulator of cards and through sleight of hand he can make any card he wants to appear. He, Charlie and Tiffany set their sights on The Dean (Stallone), a legendary card player who is considered to be the best in the game. If that wasn’t enough of a problem, it quickly becomes obvious that everyone has their own agenda.
Like many recent grifter movies, Shade has its lingo down cold. Unlike, say, Rounders (1998), the cast does an excellent job of making the grafter-speak sound natural coming out of their mouths. First-time director Damian Nieman also expertly establishes the right mood and atmosphere. His characters inhabit smoky, dimly-lit back rooms and night clubs. He is obviously intimately familiar with this world and not only references other films in the genre but also real life figures. The Professor (Holbrook in a nice cameo) is based on a real person who was a master magician and reputedly the only person to fool Harry Houdini.
Nieman has assembled a very good cast with the likes of Gabriel Byrne (no stranger to these kinds of movies with The Usual Suspects), Jamie Foxx (as a cocky card player) and Stuart Townsend. Townsend, in particular, is an interesting actor who has been the best thing in films like Queen of the Damned (2002) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). He is good as an ace card shark smart enough to know that he can’t be a grifter forever as his mentor, The Professor, says at one point, “You just have to make a choice at some point. Is it about the art or the money?” Townsend does a good job at conveying this intelligent character and the internal struggle he must resolve by the film’s conclusion.
A veteran actor and movie star like Sylvester Stallone has the kind of history to convincingly play The Dean. Only a pop culture icon like him could play the equivalent in the world of grifters. However, he is more than an icon. When The Dean arrives in town for the big game, he reunites with an old flame and ex-partner (Griffith). Like Fast Eddie in The Color of Money (1986), he confesses to being tired of trying to live up to his reputation and is toying with the idea of retiring. This fleshes out his character a bit and provides motivation for what he does later on. Stallone shows that Cop Land (1997) was no fluke by playing a cool, confident character that knows how to work away on someone psychologically as opposed to physically besting them like in so many of his past action film roles.
“Actor and Director Interviews” is a collection of soundbites from the cast. They talk briefly about their involvement in the movie and about their characters. Director Damian Nieman also talks about how he was always interested in magic and cards and wanted to do a version of The Hustler but with poker instead of pool.
There is also a theatrical trailer included which misleading packages the film as some kind of Tarantino-esque thriller.
“Tricks of the Trade” is a fascinating featurette that looks at how some of the various card tricks in the movie were performed. It also provides a brief history of the Magic Castle, a private club for magicians in California. Nieman met the cast in the Castle and showed them a few card tricks as part of his pitch. The director wanted the actors to do all their own card tricks—he didn’t want to cheat and use any edits, doubles or inserts.
Finally, there is an audio commentary with Nieman and actor Stuart Townsend. They talk about how they shot this low-budget film in only 25 days. Nieman explains what all the grifter slang means and how the character names are based on famous card magicians or hustlers. Townsend doesn’t talk as much but he does ask Nieman a lot of questions about the mechanics of card playing and does elaborate a bit on his preparation for the role. This is quite an informative track.
Shade is solid mix of The Hustler and House of Games. Fans of these kinds of movies should enjoy Shade. It is an underrated movie that will hopefully find a second life on video.