In the parlance of the illicit poker trade, a "shade" is a diversion,
intended to draw attention away from a mechanic (a very slick dealer) while
he or she is in the process of performing a cheating maneuver. A movie
titled "Shade" brings our attention to the world of the poker con, the
grifters, the sharks and the criminals who inhabit this shady world. One
such group works, plays and dodges bullets in good old Los Angeles.
Charlie Miller(Gabriel Byrne), con man extraordinaire (at least in his own
book), has pulled together a team with whom to pull off some big scores. To
pick the mark, he has foxy, elegant judge of character Tiffany (Thandie
Newton), a lady who can give Halle Berry a run for her money in sheer sensual
distraction. Charlie relies on her to find and line up the properly
competitive sucker Larry Jennings (Jamie Foxx) for a well planned poker party
with some well-heeled players.
Charlie has personal plans for him and Tiffany when he's ready to retire, a
scenario he's looking at when he pulls off something big enough, but the
heart of his operation is the mechanic, the third essential member of his
team. The mechanic is the man who can manipulate the deck to set up a
controlled hand in a winning game. For this, Miller brings in old associate
Vernon (Stuart Townsend), so masterful a card sharp that he can not only
shuffle the cards to determine everyone's hand, but to lead the game's
psychology at the table.
In his first test, he maneuvers Jennings into doing what he's genetically
designed to do, boisterously jump into a round with his competitive
testosterone raging, throwing caution and Charlie's express instructions to
the winds, and losing his entire $80,000 stake. Worse, it's mob money, not
his own. Which puts the arrogant fool in his place, and makes life very
difficult for Charlie when gang boss Malini (Patrick Bauchau) finds out who
won his money.
Written and directed by Damian Nieman, a self-professed gambling junkie,
"Shade" shows us the inner workings of the poker con from a position of some
apparent knowledge, but the loser in the formulation seems to be humanity.
Yes, there are romantic connections, a psychological glimpse into what might
motivate these people beyond the financial gain, the excitement of the risk,
the proof of superiority, the artistry in hand dexterity, the manipulation of
a player's mentality, but it somehow comes off more as textbook
demonstration than something more emotionally substantial, like Steven
Frear's masterful "The Grifters."
To its credit, the movie is replete with surprise appearances as characters
come and go. An over-powdered Silvester Stallone shows up as the most
legendary and unbeatable mechanic in the scam shop, with Melanie Griffith his
old squeeze, Eve. Bo Hopkins is Scarne, the local dirty cop always in for a
share; Hal Holbrook is The Professor, mentor to Vernon and revered master
magician at the Magic Castle. There's much to enjoy in this lightweight romp
with the nefarious, including the production quality and the chance to see
Thandie Newton (Sally Hemings in "Jefferson in Paris"), a far too underused
actress with heavyweight potential.
But, perhaps Nieman's head was too into wowing us with the tricks to remember
to give us somebody we can care about for more than game table virtuosity or
suckerhood. IHis strategy is a one-up-manship study in deception and
betrayal and a too easy slight of character depth (outshaded also by "The Color of Money" and "Rounders"). In a movie about the con, the play is to
hustle the audience into thinking it's more than it is.
~~ Jules Brenner