Winner, The

(Crime Comedy-thriller color)

Toronto Film Festival 1996: Those hoping for a major Alex Cox comeback, after his splendid but little-seen Highway Patrolman, will be vastly disappointed with The Winner, an unappealing crimer set in Vegas' gambling milieu. Cox's technical brilliance and illustrious cast of indie actors can's rescue an uninvolving, Tarantino-like yarn about small-time scoundrels and innocent losers. Prospects for theatrical distribution are scanty for a film that's meant to be quirkily comic but ultimately is more annoying than thrilling.

I can only speculate about the quality of scripts submitted to Cox, the enormously gifted director who made two of the '80s most originally eccentric films, Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, but who's also responsible for such self-indulgent bombs as Straight to Hell and Walker, movies that have curtailed his once most promisingly viable career. In his latest outing (and first pic in five years), a character-driven ensemble piece in the vein of Repo Man, Cox tries valiantly, but to no avail, to ignore the asinine plot by imposing on it a highly stylized noirish treatment.

Based on her stage play, Wendy Riss' yarn centers on Philip (Vincent D'Onofrio), an innocent known as “the luckiest man in the history of North America,” due to his unprecedented record–everything he touches turns into gold. Surrounded by losers who're desperate to make a quick buck, Philip is actually a naive man who doesn't really care whether he wins or loses, which makes him an attractive target for deception and manipulation.

Once the word spreads out that Philip is a winner, his life gets complicated and he finds himself at the center of nasty power games. Johnny (Michael Madsen), his estranged brother, suddenly returns to town with their father's corpse, which is missing a hand. That hand is thrown into the aquarium of Louise (Rebecca DeMornay), a sexually alluring, small-time singer, who enjoys living on the edge and ripping people off. Predictably, Louise finds her emotions torn between her old b.f. Johnny and current beau Philip.

The Winner is based on a single, not bad idea of a bunch of conmen who work arduously–but don't succeed–to break Philip's spirits, rob him of his gift. Convoluted but basically unengaging plot abounds in secondary characters and tangled complications that are recycled from other recent offbeat crimers. In the guise of friendship, three opportunistic amigos from New Jersey also attempt to swindle their newfound pal. And supervising it all from his control room, is the elegantly dressed casino owner (Delroy Lindo), who's taken to philosophical musings about the meaning of life.

Despite the trepidations of a second-rate yarn, Cox shows again his visual bravura, with excellent shots of Las Vegas' less glamorous side; long sweeping takes of ironic interiors (such as the Liberace Museum); compositions that are always filled with tension; fluent editing that's put at the service of the story. Helmer has succeeded in making a fast-moving pic that never betrays its origins as a stage play. But exciting as Cox's style is, it manages to call even more attention to the ludicrous story and misguided performances of many of the actors, particularly Frank Whaley and Madsen, who terribly overact.

D'Onofrio, as the innocent guy, DeMornay, as the femme fatale and pic's only female, and Lindo, as casino manager have some good moments, but they can't redeem a rambling, verbose film whose tone shifts from scene to scene, evoking Lynch, Scorsese, Tarantino and their own imitators. The Winner suggests that it may be a good idea not to use Vegas, exploited in half a dozen films this year, as locale in the near future.

The hysterical climax, in which Joey (Whaley) invades the casino and shoots everyone in sight in his desperate effort to locate Philip, bears strong resemblance to the ferocious mayhem in Rodriguez' From Dusk Till Dawn, probably because both films rely on the special effects team of Tommy Bellissimo and Charlie Belardinelli.


Philip….Vincent D'Onofrio
Louise…..Rebecca DeMornay
Casino owner…Delroy Lindo
Joey………..Frank Whaley
Johnny…….Michael Madsen
With Richard Edson, Billy Bob Thornton, Saverio Gerra.


Running time: 92 minutes

A Norstar Entertainment production (foreign sales agent: MDP Worldwide).
Produced by Ken Schwenker.
Executive producers, Mark Damon and Rebecca DeMornay.
Co-producer, Jeremiah Samuels and Wendy Riss.
Directed by Alex Cox.
Screenplay, Wendy Riss, based on her stage play, “A Darker Purpose.”
Camera, Denis Maloney.
Editor, Carlos Puente.
Music, Pray for Rain, Zander Schloss.
Production design, Cecilia Montiel.
Sound, Mark Ulano.