The Card Player is undoubtedly a minor work within the Dario Argento cannon - closer in tone to something like The Cat O' Nine Tails than the more celebrated likes of Suspiria - and a low-key precursor to his subsequent work for television; notably, Do You Like Hitchcock? and his two instalments for the Masters of Horror serial, Jennifer and Pelts. Like The Cat O' Nine Tails, the story of The Card Player takes on the usual Argento conventions of classic suspense cinema and the Giallo thrillers that would inform much of the filmmaker's greatest works - in particular The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tenebrea and Profondo Rosso - but gives it a more smooth, sophisticated and mainstream approach that seems to avoid (for the most part at least) the various quirks, characteristics and personal idiosyncrasies that the majority of Argento fans have come to expect.
The plot at first seems preposterous; a mysterious serial killer invites members of the Rome police force to indulge him in an online poker contest. If they win, his latest victim will go free. If they loose, she will be murdered live on webcam. As with his previous film Sleepless, the film attempts to update many of Argento's favourite genre tricks by juxtaposing the old, archaic conventions of the detective thriller against the modern, twenty-first century policing techniques. So, whereas Sleepless demonstrated the use of forensic evidence in tracking a brutal murderer (in relation to the tried and tested policing of retired detective Max Von Sydow), The Card Player looks ahead to the world of wire taps, computer surveillance and the general technological buzz of twenty-first century living.
Where the film falls flat for many fans is in the plotting and execution (pardon the pun). Although I greatly enjoyed the first three thirds of this film - plot-holes and character quirks AN' ALL - the final third of this film slips sadly into the realms of complete farce. In fact, if I were to watch this film in the company of friends and family, I'd no doubt cringe with embarrassment if anyone happened to look over and catch me actually enjoying this literal train-wreck of a supposedly grand finalé. Everything we hate about Argento can be found in this clumsy, ham-fisted, badly-written, badly acted dénouement, from the previously strong central character suddenly becoming the helpless victim, to the pointless motive of the seriel killer, to the continual ineptitude of the police force, and of course, our favourite, the horrible-dubbing and wilful over-acting of a character who, when lurking in the shadows, was the most terrifying force imaginable, now, out of the darkness and actually REALLY laughable (the same problem could also be found in Sleepless, to an extent).
It's such a shame too, since much of the film finds Argento breaking new ground. He's toned down the eccentricities that plagued films like Phenomena, Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome, and in doing so has stripped away much of the grandiose filming style he used to so effortlessly and vividly perform. It kind of works in the film's favour though, with this low-key thriller really benefiting from the natural lighting, unfussy composition and matter of fact paunchiness of the editing. He's also toned down the violence too, which is obviously going to be a bone of contention for many Argento fans, but again, I think he manages it within the context of this film.
Going against the grain of my fellow commentators, I will say that I really liked the performances of the two central characters, with Dario for once fining a couple with something actually approaching chemistry. Not to mention the fact that they're characters that we can actually root for and care about; which again, was down to the chemistry and integrity of the performances. As a result, the performances also helped to really enliven a number of the more elaborate set-pieces, in particular the late-night game of cat-and-mouse between Anna and her would-be assassin (which brings to mind the brilliant double-bluff sleight-of-hand found in films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebrae) and a late night chase through the shadowy streets of old Rome which is really the Italian Hitchcock at his absolute best.
Like I said, the ending is terrible, but much of the film (for me) was quite enjoyable, and if you can pick it up for under a fiver then I'd say it's definitely worth it. True, it's a far cry from the genius of his Iconic early work, but at the same time, it's nowhere near as bad as recent follies like Trauma and the risible Phantom of the Opera, so if you're an Argento completist then you're gonn'a want it regardless of the negative reviews. If, however, you have some familiarity with Argento, but have found his recent work lacking, then you might want to give it a miss (or at least try before you buy). For me, I'd be tempted to stretch to four stars, as I enjoyed the film - and the DVD transfer is a good one - but I'm knocking the grade down for the terrible ending, which really spoils a lot of the fun.