TV Review: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte Star in HBO’s Riveting ‘Luck’

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CHICAGO – Legendary TV writer David Milch turns the world of horse racing and the people who populate it into a place not unlike the legendary title location in his beloved “Deadwood.” Just as everyone swirled around Al Swearengen’s saloon, almost all of the action in HBO’s stellar “Luck,” debuting January 29th, 2012, takes place at the track or the stables nearby. And the people who populate this world do so in a way not unlike the folks of the new west looking for gold. They’re looking for a break; looking for hope; looking for inspiration; looking for luck. Television Rating: 5.0/5.0
Television Rating: 5.0/5.0

Luck and desperation are intrinsically intertwined. Those who make their livings in a world filled with risk like horse racing pray for the former but live in a world dominated by the latter. Milch knows this well as he’s a horse owner and lover of horse racing himself. The world of “Luck” feels like one that could only come from someone who understands it this deeply. There’s real affection for these gamblers, loser, and people grasping for something real. And Michael Mann understands the poetry of men (this is a very testosterone-filled world, at least until the arrival of the wonderful Joan Allen in episode four) stuck in dangerous situations (“Collateral,” “Heat,” “Public Enemies”). The blend of Milch’s unique voice with Mann’s equally uncommon eye makes the premiere of “Luck” a truly unusual first episode. It will throw some people with its dense dialogue and lack of action. Stick with it. This show becomes more rewarding with each passing episode.

Photo credit: HBO

The Ace is back in place.” Such is the cheesy line that refers to not just gambling, a major motif of “Luck,” but the arguable lead of the show, Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). I say arguable because “Luck” is definitely an ensemble piece. Much like Swearengen was to “Deadwood,” Bernstein will be to “Luck” in that he’s the most larger-than-life personality and an increasing part of the main action of the program as it progresses, but he’s actually something of a background player for the first few episodes. He has just been released from a three-year stint in federal prison and has some plans to get back to prominence that includes buying a $2 million Irish horse. But he can’t legally buy it himself, so he uses friend/driver Gus Demitrou (Dennis Farina) as a front.

Photo credit: HBO

The trainer of this gorgeous beast is the hot-headed Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), a man who seems to truly know and love training horses to race but can’t stand the people involved in the art. Love the horse, hate the jockey, the owner, the gambler, and basically everyone else. He has a slightly-less-chilly spot in his heart for track veterinarian Jo (Jill Hennessy). Another major player in the stables more than the seats is the mysterious Walter Smith (Nick Nolte). Much like Ace, Walter is something of an enigma in the first episode but it becomes clearer as the show progresses that he has a very dark past and is hoping for one more ray of light to heal his wounds.

While action takes place off the track, the premiere introduces us to four degenerate gamblers who decide to bet it all on an amazing hunch for a Pick Six bet. Jerry (Jason Gedrick) may be bad at poker and unlucky in life but he knows the horses. And so he and wheelchair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn), socially-awkward Renzo (Ritchie Coster), and the just-plain-weird Lonnie (Ian Hart) pool their bets and let it ride on Jerry’s picks. If they win, it will change their lives forever. Or will it?

Other players in the world of “Luck” include the stammering jockey agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), rising star jockey Leon (Tom Payne), wannabe jockey Rosie (Kerry Condon), and over-the-hill jockey Ronnie (real-life racing legend Gary Stevens). Future episodes include guest appearances (some small, some multi-episode arcs) by Joan Allen, W. Earl Brown, Bruce Davison, Ted Levine, Jurgen Prochnow, Mercedes Ruehl, and Sir Michael Gambon. Star power of the kind that only HBO could attract. And it should be noted that there are some high-powered names behind the camera after the Milch/Mann mash-up in episode one, including director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), director Allen Coulter (an HBO all-star, helming 12 episodes of “The Sopranos” and also shooting eps of “Six Feet Under” and “Boardwalk Empire”), director Phillip Noyce (“Patriot Games,” “Salt”), director Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker”), and Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). To call the people who made and starred in this show A-list would be an understatement.

Photo credit: HBO

Horse racing is intrinsically about practical matters like training, the skills of the rider, the curve of the track, the condition of the dirt, the breeding history of the horse, etc. And yet it is a world driven by human frailty whether it is a rider’s lack of confidence, a trainer’s dark past, or a gambler’s addiction. Such a world makes a riveting showcase for storytelling and that’s the best word to describe “Luck.” Each episode is more captivating than the one before (and I’m through four, for the record). Viewers should be aware that, not unlike later seasons of “Deadwood,” this is slow-paced storytelling. It builds like a slow burn rather than the fire that some may be expecting with the explosive cast and high-speed premise. Little happens for large chunks as Milch explores atmosphere and lets his action build organically, almost poetically, out of the setting. Each episode only covers a day, each of them ending with a stellar scene between Gus and Ace. Be aware that the first episode is the most overly poetic of the bunch and it settles into something more of a traditional narrative in the second episode (but that unique Milch speak never goes away).

As for performances, there’s nary a flawed one in the show. I wish the female characters were a bit stronger (although Condon and Allen make up for that…Hennessy is not really well-defined yet) but this is a male-dominated world and the cast is testosterone-heavy accordingly. Hoffman, Nolte, Ortiz, Gedrick, Dunn — there’s not a single weak link in this ensemble. The sign of a strong ensemble piece like this one clicking on all gears is simple — one never wishes for an alternate plotline. I was worried after the first episode that I would constantly be wondering what Ace was up to when he wasn’t on screen. It doesn’t happen. I could watch Jerry’s rollercoaster of a poker career, Walter’s battle against a deep inner well of sadness, or even the jockeys searching for a better steed to ride for a whole episode.

“Luck” builds like a race, getting more and more interesting as it gets closer to the finish line and different characters pull to the front of the pack or fall back. Some audiences will understandably be turned off by the lack of a traditional narrative flow and the slow speed. But what do they say about slow and steady? “Luck” wins the race.

“Luck” stars Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, John Ortiz, Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy, Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, Jason Gedrick, Ian Hart, Richard Kind, Tom Payne, Kerry Condon, and Gary Stevens. The premiere was written by David Milch and directed by Michael Mann. It airs on HBO on Sunday, January 29th, 2012 at 8pm CST. The second episode is available on HBO Go immediately following. content director Brian Tallerico

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