By the time 2004 rolled around, other filmmakers had been making better Dario Argento than Argento himself for the better part of a decade. Unfortunately, the director reaches a career low with The Card Player, a film that seemingly stole its plot from the draft of a James Patterson novel and its visual palette from an Italian soap opera. Gone are the visual flourishes, extraordinary soundtrack and buckets of blood that we’ve come to expect from an Argento film.

The Card Player follows Italian police officer Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) and British Interpol agent John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) as they team up to take down the titular villain, an online gambler who abducts women and the murders them if the police can’t beat him at online poker. As technology-focused films go, it doesn’t hold up too well, and it couldn’t have even been too impressive in its own time, considering that it was released five to ten years after superior cat-and-mouse techno-thrillers like Hackers, The Net, The Cell and The Matrix. Above all, the plot feels lazy.

The film was originally envisioned as a sequel to Argento’s pretty good 1996 police thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome, which saw the Italian police officer Anna Manni (played by Asia Argento) hunting a killer while being thrown into fits by gorgeous artwork. The rumor is that The Card Player was hastily rewritten after Asia, Argento’s more famous daughter, declined to appear in the film. So he recast Anna Mari, changed her name slightly, moved the action to Rome and cast his other daughter, Fiore, in a small but important role.

Reviewers at the time were not kind, and there are few joys to be had in visiting The Card Player now. The first of the two main reasons for checking it out would be to see Liam Cunningham (who played Davos Seaworth so memorably on “Game of Thrones”) playing a sort of British Horatio Caine and doing a pretty good job of it despite the limp material. The second reason is to see one of Argento’s creative, classic death scenes, which he manages to squeeze in in surprising fashion.

Though not a dumpster fire by any means, watching The Card Player is just sad for an Argento fan, as it contains so little of the myriad elements that make Argento such a unique filmmaker. Even his less coherent classics (see Opera or Inferno) are so filled with flair that they remain completely watchable. The Card Player, on the other hand, simply fails to justify its need to exist.

As for the films that were out Argento-ing Argento, 2004 also happened to be the year that Eli Roth’s excellent Dawn of the Dead remake (Argento helped write and compose Romero’s original) and James Wan’s game-changing Saw (which upped the ante on immaculately staged death scenes) were released. To see a clunker like The Card Player released with Argento’s name on it while those films were topping the box office must surely have been a tough pill to swallow for Argento diehards.

Still, part of Argento’s problem is that he did what he did best at a time when no one else was doing it. He and other innovative stylists of the ‘70s and ‘80s – filmmakers like John Carpenter, Lucio Fulci and Brian De Palma – had such striking success during their peak years that there was nowhere to go but down, particularly with raised expectations and studio interference factoring in. In a way, Argento and some of his contemporaries were victims of their own success, and the fading of their work over time is also a tribute to the high level they were once working at.

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