Reason: Tech billionaire and gambler Jake Foley (Crowe) hosts a high-stakes poker game between childhood friends that gives them the chance to win more money than they ever dreamed possible. The evening takes a turn when he unveils his elaborate plan to seek revenge for their betrayal and to play, they will have to give up the one thing they have spent their lives trying to hold on to… their secrets. As the game unfolds, thieves break in and they must band together to survive a night of terror.

Review: Russell Crowe is a movie star. There’s no doubting the actor’s skills on screen, whether it’s in marquee dramas like A beautiful mind, action epic as Gladiator, or period pieces such as Cinderella man. In recent years, Crowe has appeared in projects that appeal to him ranging from pulpy flicks like Unhinged or superhero fare included Man of steel and Thor: Love and Thunder. At this stage in his career, the New Zealand-born Oscar winner is free to do whatever project he likes and can also exercise his talents behind the camera. For his second directorial effort, Crowe returns to the type of performances that cemented him as one of the best actors working today, and also shows some solid skills as a filmmaker. Poker Face isn’t nearly as good as I’m making it sound, but it’s still an interesting addition to Crowe’s filmography.

Not quite a poker movie and not quite a thriller, Poker face falls somewhere between a psychological drama and a heist film. With elements cobbled together from all sorts of genres, this film runs the gamut from emotional melodrama to bizarre continuity issues that beg the question of how invested everyone was in making this film. For starters, the core group of friends, all supposedly Australian, includes Americans who don’t have accents for an actor twenty-six years younger than the characters he’s childhood friends with. These may seem like minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, but they also contribute to the disjointed storytelling anchored by Crowe’s melancholic delivery compared to the broader acting of some others in the cast, making Poker face feels like different movies edited together.

The film opens with a flashback to a group of teenagers playing poker before getting into a fight with a local bully and jumping off a cliff into a small lake. It’s a wholesome and very Stand By Me-esque moment that soon reveals the main characters as children. In the present, Jake Foley (Russell Crowe) explains his connection made that day with his closest friends, including Drew (RZA). The friends became business partners when their love of poker turned into developing software used by governments around the world. Now filthy rich, Jake goes on a spiritual retreat where he struggles with devastating news about his health. Reflecting on the death of his first wife in a car accident, Jake devises a plan involving his friends, whom he gathers at his home for a high-stakes card game. Arriving via a makeshift car race, drug addict Mike (Liam Hemsworth), politician Paul (Steve Bastoni) and writer Alex (Aden Young) join Drew and Jake for a life-changing game/

For the first 40 minutes of the film, the pace is slow as Jake continues his life to this point and prepares for a definitive poker game. Jake proposes a huge bet among his friends, both as a way to end his life with a clear conscience and also to kill the liars in his inner circle. Jake is no fool and knows that there are people close to him who are deceiving him in more ways than one. With the proposition of truth poised to reveal everyone’s true motives, Jake’s plan is interrupted by a group of thieves led by Victor (Paul Tassone), who have come to steal the art and possessions in Jake’s home. Plus, Jake’s wife Nicole (Brooke Satchwell) and teenage daughter Rebecca (Molly Grace) learn of Jake’s diagnosis and they also arrive. Needless to say, things go awry and the card game turns into a heist involving hostages, a panic room, and all sorts of twists and revelations piled on top of each other.

Clocking in at only about ninety minutes, Poker face takes almost half its running time to get to the card game, then abandons it to focus on the heist and standoff in the final act. Much of this film benefits from the psychological game played between the childhood friends, who have to repeat the film’s title and avoid revealing the cards they actually hold, but it’s all but thrown away when the story moves towards an over-the-top Die Hard- clone. Paul Tassone, a solid villain, gives a performance that is completely out of place compared to the rest of the film. In fact, most of the cast seem to abandon the dramatic poker element of the story and never really pick it up again. The only one that seems consistently invested in Poker face is Crowe. As a writer (based on a story by Stephen M. Coates), Crowe misses some of the nuances he makes up for with his performance. As a director, Crowe shows some creativity here in certain shots and sequences that are individually more impressive than the overall film.

Poker face could have been much better if it had played out as just a heist or just a psychological drama. By treading both genres, Crowe’s film doesn’t quite work either. There are some glimpses of what this movie could have been, including an unnecessary appearance by Elsa Pataky as the dealer for the central poker game. I came away from this short impressed with Russell Crowe as both actor and director, but more based on what he’s capable of rather than what he put on screen here. Poker face is an uneven film that never really finds a rhythm because it never lays all its cards on the table.


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