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Luck (HBO) - Pilot episode reviewed

Luck

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

HBO’S new horse-racing/gambling drama Luck has genuine thoroughbred credentials but may require a little patience to properly appreciate.

The Michael Mann-directed pilot episode set the stage in ultra-stylish fashion but posed more questions than answers. Richly populated by a variety of characters (and a top-drawer ensemble cast) it took some following and offered tantalising teasers of what may be to follow, rather than anything substantial.

Unlike the horses it depicted throughout, it came slowly out of the traps but did more than enough to whet the appetite. And that’s despite a ‘disappointing’ shortage of screen-time for one of its major assets: Dustin Hoffman.

We knew going in that this was a revenge drama as Hoffman’s Chester “Ace” Bernstein emerged from a three-year stretch in prison after taking the fall for a family member… but we’re going to have to wait to see just who is involved besides former partner (the as-yet unseen Michael Gambon), or how Bernstein is exactly going to go about exacting retribution.

Indeed, having been picked up from prison at the very start of the episode by his confidante Gus (the wonderful Dennis Farina), Hoffman only had a couple of meaty scenes in which to work his magic, including one notable exchange in the office of a swanky restaurant in which he lost his temper. It was evident, however, that this was just one of the games that Chester has in store for those he feels are owed a reckoning.

Rather, the episode concentrated on the myriad other characters who occupy Luck‘s world, from the trainers to the gamblers and beyond.

Primary among these, and providing two fascinating contrasts, are Nick Nolte’s veteran Walter Smith, a kindly animal trainer clearly haunted by his failure to protect the predecessor of the horse at the centre of this episode… another great cash hope for the more unscrupulous and greedy trainer, Turo Escalante (played by John Ortiz).

Their contrasting priorities and styles promises a fascinating clash of principles, exacerbated by Nolte’s determination to protect his latest charge from the dangers posed by profit-seeking businessmen.

And then there were the gamblers led by a degenerate bunch of apparent no-hopers, who turned the odds on their heads to win the jackpot in this opening instalment.

Leading this motley crew is wheel-chair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn), a somewhat bitter centre-piece for dim-witted followers Lonnie (Ian Hart) and Renzo (Ritchie Coster), who also relies on the predictions of desperate gambling addict Jerry (Jason Gedrick). You could practically smell the wreak of desperation emanating from them in the pilot… while roaring on their endeavours as Mann’s camera turned its attention to the race-course.

And boy did those scenes take the breath away, evoking memories of the adrenalin-inducing breathlessness he has previously brought to the big screen on films such as Miami Vice, Collateral and Heat.

Mann’s direction captured the intensity of the races themselves as well as the thin line that exists between success and failure. For every racing high, there was a low waiting in the wings… most notably during a painful snapped leg in the final race, which cast a light on one of the more harrowing aspects of the sport.

The sad demise of a horse was poignantly captured, while offering the jockey in question the chance to show how quickly joy can turn to pain.

Aside from the directorial work of Mann behind the camera, Luck also boasts a taut, often quick-witted and intriguingly complex script from David Milch, whose own track record includes Deadwood and NYPD Blue.

It smacks of quality and promises to be a slow burner that yields patient rewards. In that view, it’s worth betting long and sticking with this show to see how things unfold. Early viewing suggests that we could be in for another classic with plenty more of Hoffman to come.

Luck airs on Sky Atlantic on Saturday nights from 9pm.