Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Jason Gedrick, Nick Nolte, Richard Kind, Kerry Condon, Kevin Dunn, Jill Hennessey, Ted Levine, Ian Hart, Richie Coster, Gary Stevens, Tom Payne, Joan Allen, Barry Shabaka Henley and Michael Gambon.
Running Time: 450 Minutes
Special Features: Audio Commentaries, Documentaries – Invitation To The Set, A Day At The Races, Life At The Track, Episode Previews & Recaps.
Coming from the creator of my all-time favourite US television series DEADWOOD and acclaimed network HBO, David Milch’s complex drama was always going to appeal. When you add the astounding cast, horse-racing/crime drama LUCK looks an odds-on favourite rather than a long-shot outsider.
Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman headlines as Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, a resolute tough guy and ‘businessman’ fresh out of a three-year stint behind bars after refusing to play snitch on his partners’ drug-dealing operation. His latest scheme sees him investing in a thoroughbred racehorse with an eye on acquiring the main racetrack in Sacramento. Followed by his trusty right hand man Gus ‘The Greek’ Demitriou (Dennis Farina), whose name is being used to front the deal, Ace aims to make sure its back to (risky) business as usual with an altogether different plan to get even and making damn sure all bets are off with the odds in his favour.
More than just a focus on the shady, organised crime aspect, LUCK gives us an in-depth look at all sides of this ‘sporting life’ as we follow a washed up trainer (Nolte) looking for that second chance; A harsh, top-of-his-game rival (Ortiz) focused on getting past the post first, no matter the cost to those closest to him; The group of passionate-yet-flawed jockeys and agents (Kerry Condon, Tom Payne, Richard Kind and real-life champion jockey Gary Stevens) with dreams of making it to the big-stage derby day, and possibly most fascinating of all, the four member syndicate of degenerate-yet-likable gamblers (Dunn, Gedrick, Costa and Hart), whose initial big win is either being thrown away at the poker table or being used to bankroll their own racehorse (leaving you wondering if they’re in over their heads).
The pilot is directed by the great Michael Mann, who executive produces the entire series. His familiar sizzling shooting style and soundtrack is plain to see, not just in this first episode but his fingerprints are all over the shows run. Frequent collaborators such as Farina, Henley, Levine and Allen are all solid with Hoffman’s slick-backed stern weathered presence, menacing from the get-go (impressive for such a little guy). However, standouts come in the form of Dunn and Gedrick whose double-act as wheelchair-wheezing grouch and gifted-but-addicted gambler make many scenes memorably quotable and bring a welcome heart to the intensity. Ortiz’s fast-talking ‘Peruvian prick’ is damn special too, as are a number of the splendidly-shot racing sequences that are a thing of beauty.
The aspect that works best for the series on the whole is its ambiguity. We’ve landed slap-bang in the middle of characters and situations we don’t fully understand yet we soon familiarise ourselves with their everyday lives and connections. LUCK also succeeds in never pushing to answer who we should rooting for; each character, lawful or not, seems to be fighting their own demons leaving you to ponder which of those are on the road to redemption and which are always destined for a punishment of their own making.
Those who don’t have a vested interest in horse racing and its statistics may see a number of key plot details and scenes go over their head but the rich characters with complex back-stories ensure the series remains gripping. Although the cover art states ‘The First Season’, this will probably be as much LUCK as we’ll see. A second season was commissioned but sadly three horses were injured and subsequently euthanised during the filming of the first new episodes, thus forcing HBO to consider the shows position before ultimately shutting down production and leaving LUCK out of just that. Whilst understandable, for viewers it’s a great shame because the show was cantering towards a fascinating climax.