“Luck” Review-More Proof That HBO Doesn’t Equal A Sure Thing

Written by Spencer Sterritt February 01, 2012

With his new HBO series Luck, airing Sunday at 10:00, David Milch tries to get us to care about the seedy underworld of horse racing. He made us care about the seedy underworld of policing with NYPD Blue, and the Wild West in Deadwood, but he failed with beach bums in John From Cincinnati.  Luck has been touted as David Milch’s return to glory, but I say he hasn’t quite accomplished that feat.

Quite A Stacked Deck

In direct contradiction to the above statement, the roster for Luck is absolutely incredible. The direction (for the pilot only) is handled by Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice, The Insider), and the acting gravitas flows from Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Kevin Dunn, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, and Richard Kind in the sort of waves that only an HBO cast can generate. They all play various movers, shakers, and gamblers around the Santa Anita race track in L.A.

Luck Promo One

Milch and Mann have proven over the years how to get great performances out of their actors, and Luck is no exception. Big names like Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte give great, though at this point underutilized, performances. Kevin Dunn deserves to be singled out for his performance as Marcus, a gambler passed his prime who is confined to a wheelchair and oxygen tank. Since this is HBO, characters who aren’t given much depth (of which there are many at this point) will get their time to shine over the next couple episodes, and look to become major players in the long haul.

Playing the Long Race

Not much actual plot is given in the pilot, instead acting as elaborate table setting for the rest of the season. The sizzle reel at the end, which emphasizes Michael Gambon’s eventual appearance and an increase in violence, almost has more plot, even as a smash of scenes and voice over. But the pilot moves along at a good pace, keeping tabs on all of it’s characters, so it isn’t a large concern.

This is one of their few flagship HBO pilots that does not have any nudity or violence (at least to my memory), besides a broken horse leg. It’s rather refreshing not to have breasts and blood constantly on screen, a la Boardwalk Empire. Though, the blood will eventually flow, given the sizzle reel and David Milch’s previous shows (I’m looking at you Deadwood).

Yep, There's Going To Be Nudity

The direction is crisp, keeping with Mann’s style of alternating shaky cam and Steadicam shots, which gives everything a crisp, effective tone. The visual language he utilizes always makes sure to keep the object of conversations in focus, and does well to show the various characters spinning various ideas in their heads. His confidence behind the camera is especially clear during the horse races, which there are of course many. Whether watching on a big or small screen, the intensity and power of the horses absolutely radiates, while calling out to the majesty of the creatures. It will be interesting to see how later directors  deal with Milch’s writing and supposedly ill temperament.

The score is distinctly Michael Mann’s as well, with ambient tones falling into static and thunderous drums. One complaint I have is that the score, while effective for all scenes set outside of the race track, doesn’t mesh well with the more rustic, natural scenes in the race track. I’m assuming that over the course of the season this will be worked out, but if it’s not, it’s not a big deal.

The Hole In The Middle of IT

What is a big deal at this point is the writing. David Milch is a great writer, and he writes dialogue like poetry. Or at least he used to. So far the dialogue has been less than stellar, often dropping viewers into a scene with no indication of what they are listening to. The best example I have is early in the episode, when Marcus and his compatriots discuss their gambling strategy. They keep talking about things happening in the 4th and the 6th, which might mean something to people familiar with horse racing, but it is absolutely gibberish for everyone else (like me). I have no problem with writers dropping viewers into a scene and expecting them to keep up with the characters and the plots, but to ask the viewers to become instantly aware of horse gambling strategies seems like quite a stretch.

Apparently it took a lot of head-butting and yelling to get to these kinda happy faces

The deck is certainly stacked in Luck’s favour, but I can’t possibly recommend it to someone unless they are familiar with HBO and Milch’s previous work. The writing demands far too much from an audience, and I would be surprised if that isn’t alienating for some viewers who tuned in out of curiosity, or are looking for a way into the HBO roster. There is still a whole season to go, and the performances are definitely worth it, but only if you are used to it.

My Rating: 8/10


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About Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt: former Editor-In-Chief for We Eat Films, future President of the Men With Beards Club, and hopefully candidate for ruler of the world.

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