As someone who watches hundreds of crime films a year, I tend to run out of recommendations fairly quickly and often find myself taking chances on poster art, or titles, and finally at the mercy of algorithmic suggestions when deciding what to try next. It’s not really a life I’d recommend, but it does have its nice moments. Sometimes out of nowhere I see something thrown out years, sometimes decades, ago that seems to have been waiting for me to find it. That happened recently with 2003’s TOUGH LUCK.
Norman Reedus plays Archie, a small-time grifter trying to pull his short life out of a long skid when he is shown an unexpected bit of mercy by Armand Assante’s carnival boss, Ike. Ike catches Archie in a hustle, but doesn’t respond in anger because he recognizes something of himself in the young man; a hungry, intelligent ex-con without options in straight society nor the aptitude or inclination to stay out of trouble if given the chance at a square life. Instead of the delivering the beating Archie clearly deserves, Ike offers him a job and a home with the carnival, and Archie takes him up on the offer.
Because he’s never seen a movie before.
Nor, it appears, has Archie ever read a book because he’s no sooner met Ike’s exotic, snake-dancing wife Divana (Dagmara Dominczyk) than he’s trying to get with her Biblically. Divana does that Salome number on the snake in his pants just about the same time Ike hits him up with a familiar noir proposition.
Take my money. Kill my wife.
For the un-initiated here’s a little basic noir economics:
Trust beats you.
Love beats trust.
Boner beats love.
Murder beats boner.
Money beats all.
And you’re you.
But just like the best cards don’t necessarily win a hand of poker you can’t always tell straight off how every story is going to shake out based strictly on the building blocks of the plot. After all you’ve got to figure in bluffing. And cheating. So, before you skip this fire sale at Tropes-R-Us hear me out. What TOUGH LUCK has going for it solid execution in the performances and a good sense of stakes in the conception.
Norman Reedus is in peak handsome-tilting-into-dirtbag-burnout form here. He’s not encumbered by (much) douchebag dialogue nor dressed out of a dumpster and it turns out he’s got a lot of appeal without the props. Same in reverse for Armand Assante, who in his physical prime, was often too beautiful to take seriously. TOUGH LUCK finds him post-handsome and plausibly human, and when he growls and snarls he’s a movie magician. And Dagmara Dominczyk gamely steps into whatever role the script calls for (snake dancer, hot-tempered ethnic, hot blooded adulteress, cold, determined survivor) to match Archie’s confused perception.
So why have you never heard of TOUGH LUCK?
It’s a tough sell to a mainstream audience; no big stars, no gratuitous sex or violence and no gimmick, just a straight-up criminal intent picture made for a small audience. But the biggest reason is probably because Tough Luck is the only credit for director Gary Ellis (is he a pseudonym? is he alive?) and the singular writing credit for co-screenwriters Bill Boatman and Todd King (though King has a number of producer credits including WAITRESS, THE NINES, and SWISS ARMY MAN).
And I don’t want to oversell it. TOUGH LUCK is not an undiscovered masterpiece, nor a bold re-purposing of the genre. As noted it plays all the hits (down and out grifter/drifters, femme fatales, murder for hire, insurance scams, double-crossing partners) and even throws in the carnival backdrop, but it’s no THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or DOUBLE INDEMNITY. It’s not BODY HEAT and it’s definitely no NIGHTMARE ALLEY. The production is also stuck in an awkward period of technological transition that was particularly cruel to many low-budget features. Every missing dollar is on the screen. It looks like video and the score often grates with its choices.
As a favorable comparison I’d name John Dahl’s KILL ME AGAIN, the first (and least) of his damn good career-opening volley of low-budget noirs (followed and improved upon by RED ROCK WEST and THE LAST SEDUCTION); a promising first effort that re-invented exactly nothing, but played its tune honestly. Devotees of the genre should find something to enjoy in TOUGH LUCK , a B-movie without an identity crisis.