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Poker Face review: Russell Crowe wins big on Stan

The Australian actor bids big on his first film as director since 2014’s The Water Diviner – and the results are worth the bet.

These days, Russell Crowe goes all in. Not that he was ever short-changing audiences – anyone who can successfully play a computer-generated compilation of the world’s top serial killers in Virtuosity is always going to be worth watching, and playing Zeus in Thor: Love and Thunder with the kind of comedy accent last heard on a 1990s sketch series was the best acting choice of 2021.

But now more than ever, he seems to have decided to focus on projects where he can deliver exactly what you want from a movie with Russell Crowe in it: big, brash, and always entertaining to watch. In Poker Face, his first film as director since 2014’s The Water Diviner, that attitude is there in every scene.

End game

An extremely wealthy but somewhat isolated man discovers he’s dying and decides to get his childhood friends together for one last game of cards where they can really open up to each other. As plots go, it’s possibly not the most promising outline you’ll read this year (or this week). But Crowe, who wrote the screenplay (based on a story by Stephen M Coates) knows exactly which elements to focus on and which ones to sideline.

After a flashback opening where a bunch of Aussie kids are torn between jumping into a waterhole and playing poker (the local bully helps them decide), there’s a good fifteen minutes or so where Jake Foley (Crowe) professional gambler and part owner of a company that makes ‘military grade’ surveillance software, comes to terms with his impending death.

Partly this involves sitting around the NSW Gallery looking so glum a young woman comes up to him and asks if she can paint his portrait (which turns out to be a smooth way to fill in some backstory). Partly this involves going on some expensive drug retreat where a hippy Jack Thompson guides him to an acceptance of his ultimate demise – then loads him up with the kind of truth serum that kills you if you take too much. For a guy obsessed with control who’s facing death, and who also has a bunch of emotionally guarded mates, it’s pretty handy gear.

As for those mates, they’re the usual motley crew. Paul (Steve Bastoni) is a government minister, Alex (Aiden Young) a successful author, Michael (Liam Hemsworth) is a screw-up and Andrew (RZA) is Jake’s business partner. Throw in Jake’s lawyer (Daniel MacPherson) and Jake’s new-ish wife (Brooke Satchwell) and there’s a wild night ahead – though not in the way any one of them could have predicted.

Deal or no deal

There’s an inherent drama to a card game that’s a trap for unwary movie-makers. Just because a game is tense to play doesn’t mean it’s edge-of-the-seat viewing for audiences, and cinema is littered with forgettable films that assumed just because the cast were making big bets around a card table the drama would flow naturally. So it’s a huge relief that the card game here turns out to be little more than an afterthought.

Yes, they do end up playing a hand or two around a table at Jake’s austere art-filled rural mansion (if it looks familiar, that’s because it’s the same house used in the recent version of The Invisible Man). And yes, there are dark secrets waiting to be exposed. But the sheer number of those secrets – everyone has at least one that an entire movie could be built around – means that the drama rapidly becomes more about how everyone’s stories will impact on each other than any straightforward narrative. Especially once the guns start being waved around.

As an actor and as a director, Crowe is constantly on the lookout for ways to put a fresh spin on the material. The plot has its fair share of twists but the characters act like real people, not devices to push the drama forward; while they might brush up against the generic, they often surprise in a way that reaches for the realism behind the cliché. And there’s a lot of detail here – especially about art – that might not be strictly necessary but definitely deepens the texture of the story.

There are still a few bumpy moments. The (brief) narration is a crutch the film doesn’t really need, even if Crowe delivers it in the kind of smooth burr that could make almost anything listenable. There’s the occasional sense towards the end that things are just a little too busy, and that some of the many big twists are being skimmed over. There is also a brief scene on which Crowe’s character plays a guitar.

Thrillers with a small cast and a handful of locations aren’t exactly rare on streaming services. Ones as good as Poker Face are. It’s a genre where the bar is usually set fairly low; here Crowe has dealt himself a winning hand.

Poker Face is streaming on Stan from 22 November.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.