Shot on the relatively low budget of $2-million and released in 2008, Player 5150 is a lesser-known gambling film that got mixed responses from reviewers and audiences. Critics and viewers alike tend to agree, however, that the film’s three leads, Ethan Embry, Kathleen Robertson and Christopher McDonald, deliver standout performances.
The main drawback is an unevenness in the plotting. What starts as a tense thriller about a man in debt to his bookies meanders into relationship melodrama in the middle section, before resuming the thriller style for the denouement. Despite this imbalance, however, Player 5150’s story is compelling enough to maintain interest.
A Familiar Scenario
Embry plays Joey, a California day trader who moves millions of dollars around daily, but still craves extra thrills. He’s a compulsive gambler, betting illegally on sports games at Ladbrokes Australia. Of course, this means he has to mingle with the criminal underworld, personified in Player 5150 by McDonald as the bookie Tony, and his massive henchman Beno, played by Bob Sapp.
Already in debt to the tune of $60,000, Joey places a $40,000 bet in the hopes of covering some of what he owes. Of course, it doesn’t come off, and he ends up with one weekend in which to try to raise $100,000, or face serious physical harm. The bulk of the film is devoted to his quest to raise the cash, and the effect it has on his relationship with his wife, Ali, played by Roberston.
Layers Within Layers
Player 5150 is David Michael O’Neill’s second film as a director, after the 1999 black comedy Five Aces, which also starred McDonald, along with Charlie Sheen. For Player 5150, he seems to have taken his lead from the crime films of British directors like Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn. The plot is layered with subplots; there’s a college kid who is also in debt to Tony, and one of Joey’s clients in his stock-broking firm turns out to be a mob boss even higher up the food chain than Tony.
O’Neill weaves these threads together in an interesting tapestry. The scenes showing various mobsters intimidating indebted clients, for example, are mirrors of each other, but the muscle lower down on the totem pole can only manage a cruder version of the subtle menace that their bosses are capable of.
Focus Not Always Maintained
While this plot layering adds interest, it is also perhaps the reason why the film isn’t 100 per cent satisfying. O’Neill seems to lose focus, so not all the loose ends are tied up, and some of the sub-plots remain unresolved. Kelly Carlson of Nip/Tuck fame appears as Tony’s girlfriend, but she doesn’t seem relevant to the plot much, and her inclusion suggests she’s only there for the pulling power of her name on the poster.
Despite its flaws, however, the performances keep Player 5150 watchable throughout. Embry and Robertson are especially good; he spirals downwards from thrill-seeker to self-destructive addict, and she gives an excellent portrayal of a woman trying to cope with the man she loves falling apart.