Shade (2003) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language, violence sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Stuart Townsend, Thandie Newton, Sylvester Stallone, Jamie Foxx, Melanie Griffith, Bo Hopkins, Patrick Bauchau, Hal Holbrook
Director: Damian Nieman

Screenplay: Damian Nieman
Review published May 7, 2004

I suppose that if you were to never have seen a film involving grifters, especially one of the many to have emerged in just the past five years alone, you might find Shade to be passable, if predictable, entertainment.  As far as its own story goes, it doesn't really miss too many beats, with credible actors, interesting dialogue, nice direction, and good music.  What it lacks is freshness, coming into the conman arena with too little, and far too late to make even a ripple in the genre.

Byrne (Ghost Ship, Spider) and Newton (The Truth About Charlie, Mission: Impossible II) are Charlie and Tiffany, a couple of grifters looking for skillful poker players to join them in the world of high-stakes card-playing, and swindling others for cash.  They team up with a former partner, Vernon (Townsend, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a man who has mastered the sleight-of-hand techniques that have made him an up-and-coming talent in the underground tournament circuit.  Their latest con game might have netted them a handsome profit, but it also earned them quite a bit of dangerous heat, as some of the money they swiped happens to belong to a local boss, who either wants his money back or their heads.

This ground has been covered so often, it would seem impossible for a new idea to grow.  Call it a mix of Rounders and Confidence, plus elements of at least a dozen other films in recent memory, and what you get is a slickly produced thriller with lackluster plot elements.  It's the first feature film for writer/director Nieman, and while some of the story elements and situations seem a bit too contrived to believe, for the most part, he keeps the plot moving forward briskly enough for you to dwell too much on the weakest elements.

Possibly the biggest attraction to Shade comes from an interesting collection of actors, all of whom perform quite well in their respective roles.  The biggest surprise performance comes from Sly Stallone (Cop Land, Get Carter) himself, who shows charisma and presence in a rare role showcasing his brain over his brawn.  Also of note is the performance by Townsend, who emerges on top as the star to watch among the big names he's surrounded with.  The supporting cast is large but colorful enough to know who they are without things becoming too confusing.

Alas, if there is a player in the mix that doesn't do a good job of showing his cards too soon, it's Nieman.  He definitely has a future as a screenwriter and a director, but without a twist to add to the genre, Shade's own twists are very easy to see coming, and when each con game ends with a "surprising" payoff, the result will probably elicit more yawns than "oohs and ahhs" from most people in the audience.

Shade gets mild recommendations for die-hard fans of any of the main stars as well as those who can't get enough of any crime dramas surrounding poker or conmen.  For all others, it's like watching a card game where you know the deck is stacked -- you know who will win and when, and the only entertainment to be had in how much you enjoy the players going through their predictable motions to the inevitable conclusion.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo