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A high-stakes game played by experts

The big names in 'Shade' lend weight to its breezy tale of cons in the world of poker.

April 09, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Shade" is a clever and adroit B picture with A virtues, starting with its ensemble cast, headed by Stuart Townsend, Gabriel Byrne, Thandie Newton and Jamie Foxx. The result is a diverting genre piece about crooked poker players that takes its title from a gambler's term for misdirection. Loaded with dizzying cons and betrayals, it pays off with a satisfying and unpredictable finish.

Byrne's Charlie Miller is a veteran con man/gambler partnered with the coolly confident and ruthlessly ambitious Tiffany (Thandie Newton), an icy beauty who says she is "worth every penny" her name suggests. Charlie has latched on to Townsend's Vernon, believing he has superstar potential at cards.

These three in turn recruit Foxx's brash Jennings, and by now the guessing as to who is conning whom is underway in earnest.

A thicket of plot complications propels Vernon into a super-high-stakes confrontation with Stevens (a scene-stealing Sylvester Stallone), regarded as the dean among poker players.

The game has been arranged by Malini (Patrick Bauchau), a suave L.A. underworld Mr. Big, at a swanky suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt (actually the Beverly Hilton, since Merv Griffin is one of the film's producers). Upon arriving in town Stevens has looked up an old flame, Eve (Melanie Griffith), a successful restaurateur who doesn't mind at all picking up where they left off. In good form, Stallone and Griffith add a sense of fun to the proceedings.

In plot and characterization and especially atmosphere, "Shade" owes more to old movies than real life, but writer Damian Nieman, in his directorial debut, makes sure his movie has a life of its own through his shrewd, amusing script, assured direction and his own expertise in the tricks of the card-sharp trade.

His cast list of 56 actors also includes prominently Bo Hopkins (who brought Nieman's script to Griffin's attention), Dina Merrill and Hal Holbrook. Holbrook's Professor, holding forth at the Magic Castle, is the film's philosopher, suggesting to Vernon that he needs to decide whether to play poker for the art or for the money.

With its resourceful use of L.A. locales, "Shade" is clearly a modestly budgeted production, but cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond has brought to it a sheen that allows its key actors to stand out yet look natural. "Shade" offers the pleasures of the familiar presented with a fresh perspective.



MPAA rating: R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity.

Times guidelines: Adult themes and situations inappropriate for youngsters.

Stuart Townsend...Vernon

Garbriel Byrne...Charlie Miller

Thandie Newton...Tiffany

Jamie Foxx...Larry Jennings

Sylvester Stallone...Stevens

Melanie Griffith...Eve

An RKO Pictures production in association with Merv Griffin Entertainment in association with Hammond Entertainment, Judgment Pictures and Cobalt Media Group. Writer-director Damian Nieman. Producers Ted Hartley, Merv Griffin, David M. Scnepp, Christopher B. Hammond. Executive producers Joe Nicolo, Bo Hopkins. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. Editors Scott Conrad, Glenn Garland. Music James Johnzen. Costumes Susanna Puisto. Production designer Gregory Van Horn, Set decorator Leslie Kale. Set designer William J. Law III. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Exclusively at the ArcLight Cinemas, 6300 Sunset Blvd. (at Vine St.), (323) 464-4226.

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