William Goldman is among the most indispensable screenwriters of our time. If you don’t know his name, then you’re surely familiar with his words in one form or another, be they from The Princess Bride or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman’s extensive experience in show business has yielded a lifetime’s worth of sagely advice, which, judging from the recent action flick Wild Card, includes, “If at first you don’t succeed with a draft, try, try again.” Having been released with about as much fanfare as star Jason Statham’s straight-to-DVD vehicles usually get, this outing is actually the second time Hollywood has taken a stab at adapting Goldman’s crime novel Heat (no, not that one) for the silver screen, with Goldman himself working on the script. As I’ve yet to read the original book or see the Burt Reynolds bomb it spun off, I can’t say for sure whether or not Wild Card knocked it out of the park. But what’s certain is that this isn’t your typical Statham slugfest, forgoing most of the requisite beatdowns in favor of telling a more contemplative story…even if said narrative still ends up with quite a few bruises of its own.
Statham plays Nick Wild, a man with a dangerous set of skills and a name straight from a USA Network ’90s cop show. He’s quick with his fists, he can improvise deadly weapons out of anything, and he knows the mean streets of Las Vegas like the back of his hand. But instead of raking in a fortune as security guard to the elite or something, Nick slums about Sin City as a chaperone for those who can even find his hole-in-the-wall office. He also has a heart of gold that gets him into trouble, as it does when old acquaintance Holly (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) comes a-calling one day. After getting roughed up something awful by petulant gangster Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia) and his goons, Holly is out for revenge, and Nick can’t help but go along for the ride. Their quest to see DeMarco receive a fitting punishment ends up with a few wrong toes getting stepped on, sending the two scrambling to escape Vegas as soon as possible. But will Nick get out of town with his life intact, or will the self-destructive streak that’s been holding him back for years at long last spell his doom?
Just picture The Gambler with more guys being filleted with spoons, and you’ll have a pretty decent idea of Wild Card‘s tone. All of its marketing indicates the sort of smorgasbord of broken bones that we’ve come to love and anticipate from Statham, only for the film to veer into more introspective thematic territory about halfway through. But while the change certainly isn’t unwelcome (as Statham is rarely afforded shots at flexing the dramatic and comedic chops we know he has), it doesn’t feel as if Wild Card really earns it. Not only is it a jarring tonal shift — going from Nick dispatching thugs commando-style to fretting about his self-esteem — it also comes fairly late in the game and without a sturdy foundation to back it up. The generic musings on his dubious past that our hero shares with his medley of associates don’t do much to justify this pensive direction, especially when contrasted with the few but flashy fight sequences interspersed throughout. I don’t mean to knock Wild Card for daring to be more than its genre usually allows, but its plea for insight comes out of nowhere, ensuring that no matter how well Statham fares as Nick, the movie’s lack of focus denies the character the extra oomph it wants. It’s also wise not to expect any importance to come of prominent names like Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, and Anne Heche populating the supporting cast, as they’re around just to kill time in mostly inconsequential bit parts that virtually anyone could’ve filled.
It’s unfortunate that Wild Card never quite finds its bearings, because not only is it a scant instance of Statham getting to act, he’s not too shabby, either. Alright, so it’s no big stretch for someone in his physical condition to convince you that he could tear a henchman’s heart out with a sponge cake, but he does an admirable job of playing catch-up when the story suddenly decides to take Nick’s “inner darkness” seriously. Statham sells the world-weary, seen-it-all chip on his character’s shoulder as well as does his propensity for head-busting, letting Goldman’s witty one-liners roll off his tongue like a pro. Even though a decent chunk of their talents go to waste in quickie cameos, the supporting actors do try make the best of the situation, with a couple actually turning in memorable performances. Tucci has a good time in his one-scene appearance as a Vegas mobster, Ventimiglia makes for an effectively simpering creep, and Michael Angarano is fine as a twerpy tech bajillionaire who takes on Nick’s services as he hits the Strip. Those afraid that the movie’s emphasis on character reflection has done a number on its action-oriented side needn’t worry, for while the brawls are fewer compared to other Statham joints, they make up for it in sheer brutality. Nick is a guy who’s extremely adept at using the world around him as a weapon, and that he does, via thrillingly-staged fights in which the bad guys take a beating from ashtrays, credit cards, diner cutlery, and any other tools of destruction our hero can get his hands on.
Although the presence of such talent on camera and behind the scenes can’t help but raise one’s hopes by a few degrees, Wild Card is pretty by-the-books action fodder. The genre as a whole will be no better or worse off for its existence, but strictly in terms of Statham’s filmography, the flick comes closer to utilizing his skills beyond femur-splitting than just about anything else he’s done. While part of me will always wish it had gone that extra mile or given itself one more rewrite, Wild Card is a passable picture with which Statham fans shouldn’t find themselves taking too much umbrage.