Wild Card is, apparently, a cursed project. William Goldman, revered screenwriter of Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride and much much more, wrote a novel, Heat. He later wrote a screenplay based on the novel. Burt Reynolds, looking to come back from his early 80s physical illness and a streak of flops including Stroker Ace and Stick, but still within reach of glories such as Sharky’s Machine, was attached to star, and Robert Altman was attached to direct. An odd but titillating amalgam of talents, and an intriguing project.
But Altman left, replaced by Dick Richards, a capable but commonplace filmmaker who only succeeded in getting punched out by Reynolds on set. Heat proved the first in an extensive stretch of mid-80s action flicks where Reynolds presumably still got big paychecks to resentfully walk through projects like this, Malone, and Rent-A-Cop, which resulted in career freefall which he never quite got free of, Boogie Nights notwithstanding. Heat is the worst of those, a hodgepodge which only comes to life when Peter McNicol, playing a well-to-do nebbish who hopes to have Reynolds’ gambling-addict tough-guy protagonist teach him how not to be scared, appears. That, and one protracted sequence where Reynolds wins and then loses big to kindly Vegas card dealer Diana Scarwid, are the only things worth citing about Heat.
Cut to: 30 years later, and apparently whoever owned the rights to the script realized “Hey, We’ve got a William Goldman script here!” and set the wheels in motion for a remake, which was announced with personable action lead Jason Statham as star and the aging, legendary Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables, Dressed to Kill) as director. Again, a peculiar but exciting combination.
Well Heat, now retitled Wild Card, arrives minus one great director again, with experienced but unexceptional Simon West (Statham’s The Mechanic, Con-Air, and Expendables 2) replacing De Palma for reasons unknown. This time, no reported fistfights on set and the film itself is pretty interesting, surely worthy of more than another Stealth Cinema release, dumped in a few undistinguished theaters across the country and on Video On Demand. What is the dissimilarity between a Jason Statham film worthy of wide release, such as Homefront, Safe, West’s The Mechanic and films like this and Redemption that hurriedly sneak in and out of theaters like prowlers who've tripped some alarm? Both Redemption and Wild Card are serviceable action projects that have no major flaws and plenty to recommend.
Action cinema of the gloried 1970s didn’t necessarily come at you like a shark on steroids armed with a machine gun; Charles Bronson defending his watermelon farm in Mr. Majestyk is an action film; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, mostly remembered for the witty byplay between Clint Eastwood and an Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges, is an action film. Shaft and Dirty Harry are action films. Compare Bronson in the original, superior, truly sociopathic Mechanic, to the tepid remake by Statham and West. All would be considered PBS Masterpiece Theater these days in their relatively deliberate pacing, which is where part of the appeal of these Stealth Cinema Statham releases lie; perhaps out of budgetary consideration, the action sequences are toned down to almost human scale here; with a bigger budget, Wild Card’s efficient action finale (a vicious battle in a diner parking lot) would have been elongated with a car chase followed by karate in a hot air balloon. No cars jumping out of airplanes onto boats that turn into submarines which then jettison the cars into underground volcanoes or whatever Fast & Furious 7 (featuring Statham as a villain) is offering. While hardly Strindberg, both Stephen Knight’s Redemption and Wild Card have actual characters and relatable situations. The key? Knight is a top, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and academy-award winning Goldman’s script was written in the 1980s. It seems unlikely an unaccredited screenwriter could have offered either script to a producer today without it being “developed” into something stupider and more cartoonishly “dynamic.”
Wild Card has quite a cast. Sofia Vergara, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander and Hope Davis are just some of the heavyweight actors passing through this episodic film that retains the not-quite-successful two-parallel-plots structure of Reynolds’ original. Davis conveys a cynicism that’s almost comic here; she’s worked the strip a long time, and as much as she likes Wild, she understands him for the loser he is. She takes no thrill in his downfall at her hand, and warns him to stay away. But once he refuses, he’s just one more downfall in a long day of downfalls. Tucci plays his stock mobster role with a bemused preternatural calmness. Dominik García-Lorido, as the party girl friend of Wild's who instigates the film's main action of his avenging her rape, claims to love him, but is willing to risk his life so she can get sadistic revenge. The actress provides some shading to her dexterously manipulative character. Alexander is his typical scampish self, bringing his welcome presence and humor to his one sequence as Statham's office mate. Anne Heche, in particular, provides warmth, but has an undistinguished role as a friendly waitress that makes me think the name “Goldman” on the script was enough to get these talents to sign up. Actors like to act!
Statham himself is an interesting case; his range is limited, and he’s best when getting across hardboiled distance, but we can read the workings of his mind, which is a key gift of cinematic acting. He generally keeps it modest; in rare moments when he lets himself go it can play like a clumsy forgery of deep emotion, a lead penny (his best acting to date is in Roger Donaldson’s under heralded The Bank Job). Statham does exceptionally well in his wheelhouse of soulful, wounded, human-scale heroics, and he always sells the action sequences. You can believe his moves as genuine; he’s substantial when he’s fighting for the honor of a woman or a child or whoever he’s protecting/avenging in these films, and his action scenes always have a vulgar trashiness that’s appealing, especially in the context of Knight and Goldman’s considered scripts; by the time they’ve come around, he and we’ve earned the fancy fisticuffs.
I don’t know if West and Statham’s intentions with this project matched Goldman’s; I think the eras and blood types are different. It leads to a tantalizing rift, though, with Goldman’s character-driven drama suddenly exploding in balletic slo-mo scenes of very modern violence (choreographed by the great Corey Yuen, seasoned Hong-Kong director). The different elements of Wild Card don’t quite blend, but they seduce.
Too many modern action films (Taken, The Equalizer) focus on imperishable heroes who spend 90-120 minutes modestly annihilating all that come in their path. Statham in due course dismantles everyone in Wild Card too, but his character is too doleful and remote to come across as any kind of wish-fulfillment super hero, and that’s the strength of Wild Card. Statham’s Nick Wild is trim, caustic, highly capable, but highly melancholic, and he seems to have no genuine friendships beyond the waitress and a low-level hotel worker; everyone likes him, but they use him, and he wakes up alone. Wild Card is a solid choice for people who long for an action film that doesn’t bludgeon them with CGI, cartoonish stunts, and three overexcited climaxes. An assemblage of good actors and handsome mid-level production values (New Orleans largely stands in for Las Vegas) make Wild Card worthy of more respect and attention than it has so far received. It's a bit odd, and a bit like the quiet kid in the corner in a room full of sugared-up adolescents; its surprisingly cool and it won't haunt you afterward, but for a modern action film, its downright cozy.