Having just been released from a three-year prison sentence, calculating career mobster Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Hoffman) is no longer allowed to own a race horse. Through his long-time friend and confidant Gus (Farina) though, Ace buys a promising Irish horse, while simultaneously making plans to take control of the local racetrack and plotting revenge against those he holds responsible for his time in prison. Meanwhile, a quartet of degenerate gambles might have figured out a way to beat the odds and get rich…
While television was once seen as cinema’s lesser cousin, the idiot box is now able to attract some major talent. Take Boardwalk Empire for example. The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese (who stayed on as executive producer); the impressive ensemble remains headed up by veteran character actor Steve Buscemi, and the whole shebang is orchestrated by one of The Sopranos‘ key writers, one Terence Winter. Arriving with a similarly-impressive line-up, HBO’s horse racing drama, Luck, opens up with an episode helmed by Michael Mann (who also serves as co-executive producer), stars Dustin Hoffman and is overseen by Deadwood creator David Milch. Like the equine stallions galloping around the track, there’s no shortage of pedigree here.
As you’d expect from Milch, it’s a measured and tightly-knitted affair where multiple plot-arcs and character interactions criss-cross like an elevated spaghetti junction. As you’d expect from anything involving Mann, it’s a stylish study of perfectionism revolving around a suited badass, with a sumptuous feel and cool electro-rock soundtrack (which includes Elliot Goldenthal’s theme music from Mann crime classic Heat). Dustin Hoffman’s a class act as the mumbling mobster in the lead, while the support is peppered with terrific turns. From Dennis Farina’s likeable driver to Nick Nolte’s growling owner, from John Ortiz’s hostile trainer to Michael Gambon playing essentially the same character he did in Layer Cake.
The thing is, however, that while HBO’s best are typically slow-starters which require patience as we get used to the lay of the land and learn who’s who – like The Wire and Game Of Thrones for instance – Luck is a particularly difficult show to get into. Undeniably, it’s a classy, dense and admirably mature affair – like Milch’s Deadwood – but viewers will have a particularly hard time getting into it. It doesn’t help that the audience is thrown into the world of competitive horse-racing head-first, so much so that HBO sent out a glossary of terms along with the screener DVDs. Feeling a tad lost at first? Here are a few tips: a “Pick 6” is where the gambler must pick the winning horse in six consecutive races; and a “Bug Boy” is an apprentice jockey. Anything else, you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
Additionally, season one also feels more like an introductory chapter which might blossom into something really interesting over time. However, as you probably know by now, the show has already been cancelled due to a number of horse deaths while filming, meaning these nine episodes are all that we’ll ever see.
Another classy and mature drama from HBO, but one which will prove difficult and inaccessible for average audiences to get into.