Bottom line: HBO's new racetrack drama "Luck," is a big payout for those who pay attention, stick with it and marvel at the phenomenal talent amassed to bring this insider drama to life.
"Luck" is the long shot baby of "Deadwood" creator David Milch, who obviously loves the horses and has a soft spot for gamblers, barflies and scoundrels.
The world of horseracing is stunningly lensed in the Michael Mann-directed premiere that sees a terse and controlled Dustin Hoffman (Chester “Ace” Bernstein) emerging from a three year-stretch in prison, taking the fall for his business partners. The series is also executive produced by Mann, who creates a golden light, densely saturated palette standard for this series.
The Below the Line crafts are astoundingly beautiful and rendered with a cinematic flourish, as the Santa Anita racetrack has never looked more alluring, even in the cheap seats.
"Luck" stars a monster roster of talent: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Michael Gambon, John Ortiz, Joan Allen, Jason Gedrick, Richard Kind, Jill Hennessy and more who are memorable and mesmerizing in their respective roles, especially Kind and Nolte, who flat-out floored me in their scenes.
This is not an easy-to-follow series; you must attend to it. A veritable equine vernacular tutorial hits you right out of the gate as the shorthand of the track from gamblers, owners, jockeys, trainers and other denizens of the ponies train, negotiate and bet the farm on well-researched favorites from gleaned insider Intel.
As Chester "Ace" Bernstein, Hoffman takes bitterness and plotting to new levels in a measured and restrained performance that reveals how true gangsters roll with odds of life.
Hoffman's Bernstein is made bearable by his Greek-American right hand Gus (Dennis Farina) who always raises the quality bar in the acting ensemble he is placed in.
Farina is earthy and kind, funny and decidedly to the point. He is the Yin to Hoffman's Yang, but still a fiercely masculine force of nature in his own right.
Nick Nolte is cast as Walter Smith, the sentimentalist. He has never been better and has allowed himself to age naturally. Nolte's scenes with exercise rider, Rosie (Kerry Condon) are wonderful, and feature some of the most breathtaking cinematography of a horse in full gallop on the track.
Richard Kind (Curb Your Enthusiasm) is the afflicted, slightly manic and stuttering Joey Rathburn. Joey's clients are Leon (Tom Payne) and Ronnie (Gary Stevens). Leon fights the jockey's curse of weight and Ronnie's demon is alcohol.
John Ortiz is charismatic and beguiling in a masculine way as trainer extraordinaire Turo Escalante. His subtle sexually charged scenes with no-nonsense veterinarian Jo (Jill Hennessy) are wonderfully teased out.
Major love goes to the motley crew of degenerate co-dependent track flies, lead by Alpha male wheel-chair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn), all-heart no brains Lonnie (Ian Hart), sex machine Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and cryptic dreamy genius Jerry (Gedrick) who cannot fight his gambling demons.
This is no broadcast formulaic easy television to zone out with, but it is made with love and intelligence. It demands your attention. If you half-ass this and are distracted watching, you'll miss out.
It is rare to get a chance to fall in love with so many secondary characters, but "Luck" is highly recommended. This is a wonderfully conceived and complex drama that pays off in the end.