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TOUGH LUCK (director: Gary Ellis; screenwriters: Bill Boatman/Todd King; cinematographer: Sarah Cawley; editor: Gabriel Wrye; music: Serge Colbert; cast: Armand Assante (Ike), Norman Reedus (Archie), Dagmara Dominczyk (Divana/Melissa), Rick Negron (Raphael), Marco St. John (Charlie), George McArthur (Giant), F.X. Vitolo (Vladamir); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Carole Curb Nemoy/Mike Curb/Ram Bergman/Dana Lustig; Curb Entertainment; 2003)
“All too familiar.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Gary Ellis’s debut as a director is with a neo-noir film that tells about grifters trying to outsmart each other. The writers for this B-film are Todd King and Bill Boatman. The territory it covers is all too familiar and the scams remind one of those seen in films such as Stephen Frears’ The Grifters and David Mamet’s House of Games–both those films being far superior.

Drifter Archie (Norman Reedus) is fresh out of prison when he lifts the purse of a patron at the amusement park in Mandeville, Louisiana, and then tries to scam a carnival booth operator with the money switcheroo trick. Archie’s caught and receives a knife scar on his cheek, but the carnival owner Ike (Armand Assante), a Latvian immigrant who spent time in the Gulag, feels sorry for the loser and stops the giant security guard from roughing him up further. Instead Ike offers the con man a job as a pitchman, warning he will give him only one chance not to mess up. He will soon offer Archie $30,000 to kill his greedy sexy wife, who uses the stage name Divana (Dagmara Dominczyk) but her real name is Melissa, the carnival’s tempestuous snake charmer (it’s an albino python). The way Ike tells it, he knows no other way of getting rid of the crazed woman who threatens to kill him, and is only around to wait for him to die so she can collect his money.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.

Archie has no scruples in telling Divana about what fate awaits her, and the two become lovers and plot a double-cross whereas they will fake her death and split the money. Instead Archie gets double-crossed. Divana is inside a mobile home that goes up in a blaze and Archie gets blamed for her murder. A year later Archie, on the run from the police, tracks down Divana in New Orleans hustling a john and learns that he was set up so Ike could scam the Dominican casino owner (Rick Negron) who is using Ike’s carnival to launder dirty money. The two grifters return to the carnival to scam Ike and the Dominican, and what follows is a series of clever double-crosses that lead to a surprise ending.

I found myself saying ‘tough luck,’ I’m not in the mood to be suckered into falling for a film that deals from the bottom of the deck to tell its story. The minor film belongs on cable, rather than as a theater release, where it can be viewed as a mild entertainment diversion for those stuck on watching scam artists at work.

REVIEWED ON 12/27/2004 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”