Any Tarantino-loving film-goer might reasonably expect a US film about gamblers, hookers and cold-blooded killings to speed by in a hail of gunfire and wisecracks. The anticipation that Hard Eight could be special is heightened with the presence of Samuel L Jackson, and an opening scene set in the sort of diner where Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer might be plotting a robbery at the next table. But Hard Eight doesn't zip by; it crawls past like a film with a fatal gunshot wound to the belly. And the lines aren't polished wisecracks at all - they're the type of dull misfires you might unearth in Quentin's bulging wastebasket.
Jackson isn't the star here. He's just a small-time hood whose path crosses that of seasoned card-shark Hall, the gambler's dimwit protegé and Paltrow's miserable prostitute, who subsidises her meagre income by selling her body for a tenner. The reasons why these four characters are connected by murder and inky-black intrigue unfold slowly - - so slowly, in fact, that by the time the film clocks up its 102 minutes, you're being nudged awake by the person next to you, because the thing's over and they want to leave.
Despite the movie's taut script and unmistakable noir feel, Jackson is wasted without his customary cool. Reilly seems uncomfortably torn between playing dumb for sympathy and dumber for laughs, while Hall has all the charisma of a teabag. As for the slim-necked Paltrow, she couldn't be more lifeless even if the killer from Se7en had chopped off her head before filming started.
First-time writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson (whose next project, peculiarly, is the big-business porn drama Boogie Nights, with Marky Mark) bussed his cast to the gambling Mecca of Reno, but obviously failed to win enough cash to pay for some decent lighting. The photography in Hard Eight is incredibly gloomy and so dim, that sitting through the film's crime-riddled plot is enough to give you a serious case of eye-strain. Assuming, of course, that you manage to keep your peepers open that long.
We'll bet you that, as the end credits roll, there'll be a delay before the seats clack back and the Hard Eight audience emerges blinking into the foyer. Give them a chance. It's a struggle pulling yourself out of a coma.