In the eight years that have elapsed since his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe must have been searching for more subject matter as hefty and solemn as that 2014 film, where his character goes in search of his son’s corpses four years after the battle of Gallipoli, and just a few weeks after his wife committed suicide. He’s landed on it with Poker Face, a story about an internet billionaire who plays a poker game with his friends that is interrupted by art thieves.


That last sentence may reek of sarcasm, but here’s a genuine comment about the new Stan original film: It’s not bad. It’s certainly a comedown from The Water Diviner, which was no classic, but still a good effort for a first-time director eager to meaningfully examine a major historical event in his country’s history. Poker Face doesn’t have those sorts of ambitions, and since Crowe takes himself pretty seriously on screen (whenever he’s not dancing around in a Thor movie), it seems like an unlikely follow-up. That said, it has its moments in the home invasion genre, with some decent twists to offset some of its more farfetched ones.

You wouldn’t know from his rascally beginnings that Crowe’s Jake Foley (how’s that for a movie character name) was going to make bank by helping pioneer the world of online poker. We see him and his mates some four decades ago, playing poker at the edge of a swimming hole, where older siblings and other assorted bullies try to knock over their game and steal the money. The younger kids escape over the waterfall and out of harm’s way, thumbing their noses at the screaming bullies while some very lad-like music plays in the background. To think, nowadays they’d all ruin their phones.

This establishes the dynamics of this group of friends during the rest of film, not to mention the antagonists. All those friends had something to do with the online poker venture but many of them cashed out early. Only Jake and Drew (RZA) stuck it out and now are reaping the rewards, with Jake having invited his old friends to his space-age Sydney mansion overlooking the water. They haven’t all made good and some are in downright trouble, but Jake offers them each $5 million in chips in a winner-take-all game of Texas Hold ‘Em. The secret he’ll reveal to them, in an evening of revealed secrets, is that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer, hence this gathering with its high stakes.

One friend, Paul (Steve Bastoni), has a secret he’ll bring to bear, which is that he’d planned this very evening as the night his older brother Victor (Paul Tassone) and Victor’s art expert cohort (Benedict Hardie) will break into the mansion to steal its invaluable art. See, this was only revealed to Paul at the 11th hour as the surprise location of their reunion. He can’t rightly tell Jake that was the plan, though, and fellow mates Michael (Liam Hemsworth) and Alex (Aden Young) are oblivious . Naturally Jake’s cheating wife (Brooke Satchwell) and spoiled daughter (Molly Grace) are also going to end up in the middle of it.


As with any cinematic poker game, there are going to be surprise gambits and plays here, but the movie’s biggest surprise may be its brevity. At only 95 minutes, Poker Face is a true rarity in today’s movie landscape. It’s made to feel even more structurally unusual given how much setup Crowe delivers prior to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it climax. It’s one of those situations where less is better, even though there are some screwy reveals in that comparatively long setup. You might not particularly consider Crowe someone who would curb his own tendencies toward indulgence, but he does here.

There’s a bit of a telly movie look to this thing though. Crowe’s filmmaking has a few out-of-fashion touches, like flashbacks to a traumatic event that are told in montage, sometimes even using slow-mo. Those were also present in The Water Diviner but they have more of an impact when the rest of the film around it is of lesser quality. Then Crowe’s employing some outdated narrative tropes, like the wife and daughter who are in peril. You can also get hung up on specific silly details, like the fact that Hemsworth is playing Crowe’s contemporary, yet in real life they are separated by 26 years. The makeup artists strain to make Hemsworth look a little older, but if Crowe wanted to give a job to an Australian mate – Steve Bastoni, for example, also appeared in The Water Diviner – then he might have had some choices of actors born in the 1970s rather than the 1990s. (If we’re following the favour chain here, Elsa Pataky, Chris Hemsworth’s wife, also appears here as the game’s dealer.)


Poker Face is the sort of movie that loses quite a bit on disassembly after the fact. In the moment, though, it’s interesting enough, even at the times it’s shooting off in multiple directions without any sense that it’s going to pay off these various narrative threads. It does, enough. And hey, at least it gets you out the door pretty quickly – maybe not a whole lot richer for the experience, but probably also not feeling like you’ve busted out of the game.


Poker Face is currently streaming on Stan.

6 / 10