According to Judge Bill Gibron, the only thing that gets "played" by this wholly improvised homemade crime drama is the audience.
With friends like these…who needs enemies?
When a robbery goes wrong, small-time criminal Ray Burns (Mick Rossi) ends up taking the rap. He serves eight years in a U.K. prison before finally being released. Almost immediately, he is contacted by old crime boss Jack Rawlings (Roy Dotrice, Amadeus). He wants revenge against the men he feels are responsible for his son's death—crooked cop Brice (Vinnie Jones, X-Men: The Last Stand) and hitman Riley (Patrick Bergin, Robin Hood). Tying the take-out to a case involving an exiled criminal, London Charlie (Steve Jones, Mascara), Rossi prepares to head to L.A. Before he goes, he looks up a past lover (Joanne Whalley, Scandal) and helps out an old friend (Patsy Kensit, Lethal Weapon 2). Of course, Brice and Riley are onto the double cross, and they plot to keep Ray in America…permanently. When the hit goes wrong, Ray must rely on Dillon (Val Kilmer, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to save his sorry behind and, once back in England, it's time to wrap up all the loose ends. Of course, Ray doesn't realize he's being Played, with all sides hoping to silence him once and for all.
Here's a question for all you independent film fans out there: How did an absolute nobody like Mick Rossi, a man with three whole acting credits on IMDb and no other movies as a writer, get a cast like the one included in his debut feature, Played? Maybe it has something to do with his connection to director Sean Stanek, a performer with only a slightly more impressive onscreen resume. This visual effects technician and part-time thespian could indeed be the key. But one still has a hard time believing that two guys mostly unfamiliar to even the most diehard outsider filmmaker aficionado could corral Gabriel Byrne, Val Kilmer, Patrick Bergin, Vinnie Jones, Anthony LaPaglia, Steve Jones, Patsy Kensit, Joanne Whalley, Bruno Kirby, and Roy Dotrice to star in their improvised, shot-on-digital crime drama. Whatever magic they hold, whatever persuasion feeds their ability to convince, they should bottle it and sell it on the open market. It would be a heck of a lot more successful than this Tarantinoesque tripe. Starting off like Reservoir Dogs and ending like a half-dozen other derivative shoot 'em ups, this overly uncomplicated collection of double-crosses and plot holes pretends to be a grim, gritty look at the criminal underworld. What it actually represents is the reality of life as a former A-list superstar. Apparently, once the phone stops ringing and once your agent refuses to return your calls, you'll accept any half-baked idea that comes floating your way.
Make no mistake about it—our motley marquee crew is not bad. Indeed, they give this incredibly average attempt the only smattering of respectability it will ever earn. If Played had to rely on the efforts of Mr. Rossi to give it some gloss, we'd be staring at one dull, dingy mess. Whatever his talents, performance is clearly not one of our artist's strong suits. With an ambiguous accent (Is he British? American? Belgian?) and a small, slight frame, he seems like somebody's substandard stand-in. Part of any actor's armory is presence, and Mr. Rossi has none. He evaporates into the woodwork in every scene, and even alongside such non-cinefacts as Steve Jones, he comes across as ancillary and superficial. And he's the lead, remember, the dude we're supposed to root for. Equally uninvolving is the story. The whole payback angle is awkward, since we don't understand the dynamic between the competing criminal elements. Bad cop Brice is obviously antsy about getting caught, but everyone else is keeping their vendettas as close to the vest as possible. Even when we receive a typical talking villain denouement at the end, the revelations are routine and inconclusive. And then the film just ends. Bang. Roll credits. While this may suggest sequel fodder, it's perhaps a better indication of this productions lack of ideas.
All of which makes the good moments that much more scarce. Though he is channeling his typical tough guy growl, Vinnie Jones is always an inspired baddie. His "F" and "C" bomb-laden tirades are a treat. Equally good, while barely onscreen for a minute, is Gabriel Byrne. He exudes good cold and calculating. Val Kilmer goes gonzo for his ad-libbed riffs as a helping-hand hood, and British blitz kid Andy Nyman is brilliantly demented as an Ecstasy-addicted stoolie. Sadly, the rest of the cast is mediocre at best, especially the late Bruno Kirby. Stanek decides to stage his big interrogation scene as a series of split screens and smash cuts. It's only at the end that we see he was working with Anthony LaPaglia. Not the best way to feature a formidable American character actor. But the biggest mistake made by Played is the insane assumption that an improvised movie can actually work. Examples are so rare that unless Christopher Guest has something to do with them, illuminating illustrations are few and very, very far between. With a fatal reliance on the telephone to forward exposition (since action and violence would actually cost money) and a company of crackerjack individuals who are given very little to do, Played poops out long before its premise is done diddling around.
Lionsgate releases this pointless production on a DVD loaded with problems. First and foremost is the grainy, frequently fuzzy 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. Money can make or break a movie, technically speaking, and the lack of cash really shows here. The colors are muted, the compositions consisting of frequently out of focus material. The telltale gray specs of a shoddy image infiltrate most of the scenes, and ghosting is a prevalent problem. Some of these flaws can be excused, but none prevent the sense of sloppiness this transfer suggests. On the sound side, things are much better. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is excellent, with dialogue easily discernible and ambient interference kept to a minimum. As for added content, we are treated to the world's most boring commentary (by writer Rossi) and a 14-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that offers little in the way of insight. We do learn that Kilmer's in-car conversation with his mother was actually…an in-car conversation with his mother (who called while the cameras were rolling). Other than that, it's odd accolades and ambiguous motives all around. And don't expect to learn much from the alternate narrative. Rossi routinely drops out for minutes at a time, leaving dead air to answer some of our most pressing production questions.
If you want your crime story to "snatch" you up and deliver the goods "lock, stock, and two smoking barrels," stick with a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie. Played is a pathetic excuse for a mob movie, name cast or no-name cast.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-Length Audio Commentary with Writer/Actor Mick Rossi
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