Film and TV

Luck: "You Don't Know Your Own Depth"

When word came out that David Milch was working on another series for HBO, the inevitable question arose: Would we be getting the David Milch that created the densely lyrical, critically acclaimed Deadwood? Or the David Milch responsible for the incoherent John from Cincinnati? As it turns out, Luck represents neither. And both.

The narrative of Milch's series about horse racing is much more straightforward than JfC, though understandably less verbose than his series about that town in South Dakota. There's an ease to the proceedings, owing in no small part to his own well-documented history with the sport (Milch used to go with his father to Saratoga, where a waiter would run his bets for him; he also owns thoroughbred horses). The result therefore comes with a familiarity and accessibility perhaps absent from his earlier works.

HBO isn't taking any chances with this one, it seems. Michael Mann directed the pilot, and seeing names like Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina and Nick Nolte in the opening credits lets you know you're in for some fine scenery chewing, at the very least.

As with any pilot, there's a certain amount of level setting. Hoffman plays Chester "Ace" Bernstein, fresh out of Victorville after a three-year stint for...well, we're not sure yet. In a later meeting with a former crony, he alludes to "taking the fall" for his partners, so we'll assume it's a racketeering beef or something similar.

Farina is his driver, Gus. The story is that Gus scored well enough on the slots to buy a horse of his own (the conditions of Ace's release apparently being that he can't be involved in managing horse), and he shows Ace his owner's license for a horse named "Mon Gateau." We follow Ace around as he gets reacclimated to the Santa Anita environs, and as he begins to sketch out his plans for the future.

But the first episode is primarily concerned with the machinations of a foursome of gamblers trying to hit the vaunted pick 6, which stands to win them more than $2 million. They're led by the wheelchair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn) and masterminded by the burnt-out Jerry (Jason Gedrick), who makes the pick selections but is unable to provide any seed money thanks to his tendency to lose at poker. Jerry goes against Marcus's advice by taking a thousand-dollar loan from the track security guard/shark Kagel, who is only convinced to lend the money if Jerry shares his picks. They end up winning, but their reticence to come forward and claim their prize before "sorting out this IRS shit" is surely going to bite them on the ass.

Gus's (and Ace's) jockey is named Leon (Tom Payne), an allegedly Cajun kid (Payne's accent is...tentative at best) with a tendency to run his mouth. This earns him a rebuke from his agent, Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind). And I'm sorry, but if we're supposed to believe Rathburn is in any way menacing, that's going to be a weak spot in the show.

But their secret weapon is the trainer, Escalante (John Ortiz). He, in turn, has his hands full not just with his rookie jockey, but with rival trainer-turned-owner Walter Smith, who is cautiously optimistic about his new colt "Gettn'up Morning." There are also cryptic comments about the colt's sire, and hints about a past scandal.

There's a lot to digest over the course of an hour, but Milch has laid out a tantalizing blueprint that manages to capture both sides of this world. The race scenes themselves are beautifully shot, capturing the thrill of those two minutes. Everything from the shadows of the Angeles National Forest to the horses themselves offers a flash of the grandeur of the sport of kings.

The flip side of that, of course, are the people. Marcus is the cliché of every guy you see in a casino betting his disability check on black, while Jerry looks to be about two bad poker hands away from hustling johns at the 7-11. And it isn't like Mann and Milch could shy away from the sport's seediness. The two go hand in hand.

Of course, everything hinges on Hoffman (Milch said in an interview that giving advice to Hoffman is like telling the Mississippi River how to run), and he does a great job portraying a man champing at the bit (racing lingo!) to get back into the life. His one burst of emotion comes when an associate insinuates he might have flipped for the cops. And there's a telling moment in a final conversation with Gus when he talks about how he "shrunk" in prison ("I gotta get new shirts"), which speaks not just to his physical stature but his fears about his ability to stay in the game.

Somehow I doubt that'll be a problem.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar