Somebody's been watching too many movies. Or too few movies, too many times. Riffle though director Wayne Kramer's DVD collection and a handful of sleeves will stand out, the smudge of fingerprints separating them from the pack. Casino, Swingers, Hard Eight, Intacto - - add The Cooler and you've got a royal flush, or so Kramer hopes.
Trouble being, you know these cards before they fall. Intricate eye-in-the-sky shots of cards snapping and dice click-clacking? Hit me. Insouciant jazz, notes hanging in the air like blue-tinged cigarette smoke? Hit me. Sinatra purring on the soundtrack? Hot lights rolling over cool windshields? God's-eye view of Vegas blazing in the night desert? Hit me, hit me, hit me. It doesn't stop there, either, the stock characters and sharp, mannered dialogue blinking like a neon sign: You're Watching A Movie.
But here's the catch: The Cooler's funny, thrilling, tense, stylish and hugely enjoyable - - just as, say, Boogie Nights was funny, thrilling, tense, stylish and hugely enjoyable. It's a comparison worth making, for while Kramer is no PT Anderson and The Cooler is no Boogie Nights, it's all a case of singing confidently from borrowed hymn sheets. Anderson went on to write his own music with Magnolia. There are signs that Kramer could do the same.
He certainly has a way with actors. Okay, so Macy again plays a jaundiced loser ("Kryptonite on a stick"), but this time he takes the lead and allows bursts of sunshine to light up his cloudy features. Surprising? Not when you consider Maria Bello, naked, the sultry actress joining Macy in a couple of lusty sex scenes. She's terrific, revelatory as a damaged waitress who licks wounds - - hers and his - - through bared teeth.
But it's the Oscar-nommed Baldwin who steals the show as casino boss Shelly. Sadistic but idealistic, he'll punish unpaid debts by regretfully smashing your knee with a baseball bat... Then offer you a job. He is, after all, old-school Vegas, rallying to protect the Shangri-La from The Strip's ongoing Disneyfication. It's about tradition. It's about codes. It's about respect. And it perhaps sheds light on Kramer's slavish adherence to all those other movies.