Mike Hodges effortlessly weaves multiple layers of reality in Croupier.

On the ball: Clive Owen stars as Jack -- or is it Jake?
On the ball: Clive Owen stars as Jack -- or is it Jake?
Before we see anything in Croupier, the new film from director Mike Hodges and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, we hear the grainy whir of the ball spinning around the rim of a roulette wheel. When the image of the wheel appears, the sound drops out, to be replaced by the affectless voice-over of the protagonist, Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), who observes the action around him from a remove, almost like a ghost.

Director Hodges has had a weird, largely unsatisfying career since making his name in the early '70s with two Michael Caine vehicles -- the seminal tough-guy pic Get Carter and its bizarro follow-up, Pulp. Since then his projects have ranged from the overblown Flash Gordon (1980) to the wonderfully silly Morons From Outer Space (1985) and the horrible, unintentionally silly A Prayer Before Dying (1987).

Croupier, which has been waiting two or three years for American distribution, redeems Hodges's faltering career. It is a complex, almost cerebral thriller, directed and edited with a welcome terseness and economy. Jack, we quickly learn, is a wannabe novelist, struggling with both a pandering literary marketplace and a lack of genuine inspiration. His girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee), has boundless faith in him -- in fact, more faith than he has. At times it appears as though Marion, a former cop turned department store detective, is more in love with the idea of living with a writer than she is with Jack himself.

At the urging of his father (Nicholas Ball), a sleazy gambler living in South Africa, Jack, who has run out of money, returns to his former occupation: He takes a job as a croupier in The Golden Lion, a London casino. Marion is not pleased: Not only does this leave less time for Jack to write, but it also means a work schedule that gives them no time together.

Jack, who himself never gambles, is a natural behind the tables. He seems almost too good at separating his personal and professional lives: The job requires him to lock away all personal feelings and behave like an automaton, not merely at work, but after work as well. Nonetheless, he finds himself becoming involved: with Matt (Paul Reynolds), an obnoxious co-worker; Bella (Kate Hardie), an adorable croupier who used to be a druggie and an S&M call girl; and Jani (Alex Kingston), a mysterious South African woman engaged in some sort of illegal activities.

While all this creates a jumble of conflicting loyalties and priorities for Jack, it also gives him the material he needs for a novel. He dives into work on I, Croupier, a thinly veiled description of his new life. That he is soon sucked into a criminal scheme only serves to provide even more sensational material.

Hodges and Mayersberg use Jack's novel as a means to complicate the structure of their narrative. From the first, Jack's narration has been in the third person, describing what "Jack" is doing. Once he starts work on I, Croupier, the voice-over sometimes confuses "Jack" with "Jake," the book's protagonist. We begin to wonder: Is the onscreen action "real," or are we seeing the book that Jack is writing? Since we are watching someone named Jack writing an autobiographical story about someone named Jake, is the narration really in the voice of some other author -- let's call him "Jock" -- writing an autobiographical story about someone writing an autobiographical story?

It is no coincidence that Hodges likes mirror shots. This structure not only casts a cloud of doubt over the reliability of the narrator's view of the events, it also emphasizes the nearly psychotic detachment Jack has to develop to function in his job. He becomes a dispassionate observer in his own life. As he says when the end of the film returns to the opening scene: "Now he had become the still center of that spinning wheel of misfortune. The world turned around him, leaving him mysteriously untouched. The croupier had reached his goal: He no longer heard the sound of the ball."

All this sounds a bit more deep-dish and pretentious than it comes across on the screen. Hodges may be no stranger to pretentiousness himself, but he largely manages to counter the most irritatingly artsy tendencies of screenwriter Mayersberg, who also penned Nicolas Roeg's Eureka and wrote and directed the silly Captive. And to Mayersberg's credit, the final plot twists, while more than adequately set up, are still genuinely surprising. Croupier takes roughly a third of its length to really get going, but once it does, it's a devilishly clever, engaging piece of work that milks every cent of value from its tiny budget. In its ingenuity and stylishness, it recalls last year's premier British thriller, Following -- not at all bad company to be in.

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