Sex, Leins & Videotape #141. Tom Leins reviews Luck, Southern Comfort and The Arrival of Wang

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Gambling, gunplay and government conspiracies – Tom Leins reviews the latest DVD releases.

Created by esteemed TV screenwriter David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and boasting a pilot directed by Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) Luck (HBO Home Entertainment) was tipped for big things when it arrived on our screens earlier this year, only to fizzle out in chaotic circumstances.

This ensemble drama takes an oblique look at the world of horse racing in California – encompassing owners, gamblers, jockeys and disparate array of industry players. Looming large over proceedings is Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), an organised crime kingpin who has recently been released from federal prison after serving a three-year stint for an unspecified crime. While he was inside Ace’s associates transferred the ownership of ‘Pint of Plain’, a promising Irish racehorse, to his faithful, long-time chauffeur Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina, Snatch), as part of a complex plan to re-establish Ace’s empire. Elsewhere veteran trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) sees an untested thoroughbred horse as his ticket back to the big-time – if he can keep his demons in check.

Despite its top-notch credentials, Luck was arguably overshadowed by the ominous off-screen stories that started to circulate almost as soon as the series started to air. Despite securing a second series on the basis of its first episode, HBO had a change of heart after a third horse died during production, and Milch and Mann were forced to issue an official statement to combat ‘fabrications and distortions’ supposedly disseminated by PETA. Even stranger was Nick Nolte’s revelation that tensions between David Milch and Michael Mann got so bad that Milch stormed the editing suite with a baseball bat in a fit of rage at Mann’s sluggish work-rate!

Despite Milch’s long and fruitful association with HBO, Luck now becomes his third drama to be cancelled by the channel before reaching its conclusion, following in the footsteps (or should that be hoof-prints?) of Deadwood and John From Cincinnati. Hoffman may dominate proceedings with his eye-catching TV debut, but it is the lesser-known performers who give the show its heartbeat. For example, the show’s most interesting sub-plot follows a posse of degenerate gamblers or ‘railbirds’ (played by Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster and Jason Gedrick), who plan to make a killing by pooling their money to bet on a ‘pick six’ accumulator worth $2 million. In contrast, the Sopranos-esque storyline featuring a foul-mouthed Michael Gambon feels ill-suited to the slow-burning bigger picture. While it may not rub shoulders with classic HBO dramas such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Oz, Luck remains an engaging nine-part curio, and is well worth taking a gamble on.

Out now on Blu-ray for the first time is Southern Comfort (Second Sight), the cult 1981 movie from veteran director Walter Hill (The Warriors, Johnny Handsome). Long considered an allegory for the Vietnam War, Southern Comfort fits snugly into Hill’s testosterone-fuelled back catalogue, and recalls gritty cult classics such as Deliverance and Rolling Thunder. Set in 1973, Southern Comfort follows the fortunes of a Louisiana National Guard squad who are participating in weekend manoeuvres in rural bayou country. Cynical Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe, 24) is an unwilling transfer from the Texas National Guard, and quickly registers his disgust at the behaviour of his new colleagues, and wants no part of the planned liaison with prostitutes that has been lined up by Spencer (Keith Carradine, Dexter, Deadwood). However, despite their initial hostility the pair are forced to rely upon one another when another soldier’s recklessness sees the squad come under attack from a vicious band of Cajun settlers.

Walter Hill is one of Hollywood’s most overlooked talents, and after almost a decade away from directing – his last film was 2002’s prison boxing drama Undisputed – he is poised to re-enter the fray next year with frenetic Sly Stallone thriller Bullet To The Head. Whether or not he can recapture the brutal verve of his career-defining 70s/80s hot-streak remains to be seen, and Southern Comfort is a vivid reminder of his knack for dark, macho morality tales. With an evocative Louisiana bayou setting and a typically haunting soundtrack from Ry Cooder (Paris, Texas), Southern Comfort has plenty to recommend it. While Deliverance remains the better-known movie thanks to its over-familiar moments of notoriety, Southern Comfort is certainly its equal, and will definitely appeal to fans of the better-known flick.

Low-budget Italian thriller The Arrival of Wang (Peccadillo Pictures) follows the fortunes of Chinese-language interpreter Gaia (Francesca Cuttica) who is offered a lucrative but mysterious assignment which pays well enough to lure her away from her dull movie translation day job. After being escorted to a secret location in Rome, she is locked inside a pitch-black room where she is asked to interpret the tough-talking interrogation of the eponymous Wang. Unnerved by the way the meeting is conducted by the domineering Inspector Curti (Ennio Fantastichini, Loose Cannons), Gaia demands that the lights are switched on. Only upon seeing Wang for herself, does Gaia realise why the job is shrouded in mystery, and quickly surmises that she may be in way over her head…

Somewhat inevitably – considering the film’s central conceit hinges on its main twist – The Arrival of Wang runs out of steam almost as soon as it shows its true hand. While the plot point is undeniably quirky, it lacks the legs to carry the film, and the movie feels like a short film idea stretched out desperately beyond its use-by date. Cuttica impresses as the interpreter with a social conscience who finds herself thrust into a bizarre world of subterfuge and incredulity, but she is one of the few plus points. With weirdly sloppy direction and a stodgy narrative curve, the Manetti Brothers do little to distinguish themselves here.