The listing on Hulu for Shade touts it as “the first feature film from real-life card shark Damian Nieman”, with Nieman both writing and directing the picture. A quick check on IMDb revealed that it is in fact the only feature film from Nieman, who has no other writing or directing credits at all, having apparently dropped out of feature films afterward. He has a TV producer credit to his name (“The Takedown”), but it appears to have been very short-lived, and was also several years ago. On the whole, it would definitely give one cause for some trepidation on this film.
And yet, the film actually managed to surprise me, turning out to be far better than I would have expected from a freshman effort, let alone a solitary effort. Perhaps it’s fitting that it surprised me, because Shade refers to an act of distraction to cover deceit. The movie is a tale of the con, a film built around the story of a group of con artists looking for one big score, against the legendary “Dean” of card sharks.
A large part of the film’s success, of course, is due to the cast, which has a surprising number of recognizable faces, albeit mostly in the supporting cast. The main trio of characters is played by Thandie Newton, Stuart Townsend, and the more veteran actor Gabriel Byrne. I was unfamiliar with Newton and Townsend before this, but IMDb reveals each has had a few major film roles, even occasionally ones I’ve seen. Jamie Foxx has a significant role to play in the early part of the movie, and some important supporting roles are filled by Melanie Griffith and veteran character actors Hal Holbrook and Patrick Bauchau, both of whom manage to fill their characters with personality despite being on the screen for perhaps 15 minutes put together. And then, of course, there’s the Dean himself, played by Sylvester Stallone. Though he’s the target, he is every bit as important to the tale as the main trio.
The movie is centered around a group of card players / con artists who work together to bring in larger scores. Tiffany (Newton) finds the mark. Charlie (Byrne) sells them on the game. Vernon (Townsend) makes it work. They’re familiar with multiple cons (the film opens with a diamond ring variation on the classic Stradivarius scam), but the one they favor is based on poker. Get a solid player into a game, and have Vernon, the “Mechanic”, ensure that the hands fall out the way the team wants. Early on, they pull this off after recruiting Larry Jennings (Foxx) as the skill player. Foxx plays his cards just the way they want him to, and the scam is a great success. Unfortunately, one of the players in the game bet a large sum of money that wasn’t actually his… it belonged to mob boss Max Mellini (Bauchau), and Mellini wants it back… or them dead, whichever is easiest. Thus it becomes that much more important that they get into the game with the Dean and take him for all he’s worth; it was their original plan anyway, but now their lives are riding on it. Trouble is, as good as they are, the Dean is both a master card player and a master con himself, and has never been beaten.
All of the actors do a fine job, and I strongly suspect the more veteran actors among them had a hand in helping out the direction of this film. In fact, some of it made me think of Stallone enough that I briefly wondered if Damian Nieman actually existed. It turns out he does, but it would have been a nice little twist had he been made up solely as a bit of misdirection himself. There are some weaknesses in the directing, most notably a tendency to flashback in such a way that exact scenes are briefly repeated, and a degree of indecision on whether or not to break the movie into chapters (the first half has them, but they large disappear later on). But on the whole, Nieman did a good job of presenting the tale in a coherent fashion without being too subtle or too heavy-handed.
In terms of writing, the strength of this movie is more in its plot than in deep characterization. While the characters have personality, they don’t have a lot of depth; they are painted in broad strokes and can be summed up simply as “the femme fatale”, “the old con looking to retire”, “the mob boss”, and so on. We’re told that there is a degree of bad blood between Tiffany, Charlie, and Vernon concerning an incident in the past, but we’re never completely filled in on what it was, just that they’ve agreed to let bygones be bygones for now. We get just a hint more with Vernon’s interactions with “The Professor” (Holbrook), but for the most part, characterization here comes in nuances rather than explicit details. The important thing for this movie is the tale, and it’s a good one. If you’re familiar with con tales, you’re probably not going to be fooled by the plot at any point, but you’ll enjoy seeing the cons play out. If you’re less familiar with cons, well, you’ve probably got some surprises coming your way, because the movie manages to avoid tipping its hand to anybody who doesn’t already know how such a con plays out.
And you can definitely tell that that Nieman knows his stuff when it comes to the con (which, if his bio isn’t lying, he should.) The movie is filled with references to traditional cons and con terminology, and it doesn’t bother trying to explain every last detail of them to you. It assumes you either know, or can figure it out from the context.
If you’re looking for deep characterization, you should probably look elsewhere. But if that’s not a high priority for you, and you like movies about cons or heists, or just enjoy seeing a battle of wits play out, this is an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. It’s available for free viewing on Hulu until October 16, 2011.