Just as they did with Boardwalk Empire, HBO has again pulled off a neat trick in roping a critically acclaimed A-List Hollywood director to roll out the pilot of its latest Sunday night trip to the land of compelling, adult-oriented television drama. And just like Martin Scorsese was the perfect choice to recreate the dark, gangland backdrop of prohibition era America, the network could have made no finer choice to realize the colorful hustle and bustle that characterizes the world of professional horse racing – a world that’s reach extends simultaneously to points seedy and glamorous- than Michael Mann.
Mann is on familiar thematic turf here, orchestrating a complex cast of obsessive, exacting professionals – trainers, hustlers, gamblers – for whom studying the form guide is a science, the ability to spot a winner at a glance is an art, and for whom luck has nothing to do with either. Likely he found a kindred spirit in creator David Milch, who, weaned on days at the track by his father, reportedly has had this idea kicking around his brain for twenty-five years. Throughout his career, from Capitol News to NYPD Blue, Milch has shown a fascination for people who live and breath their ‘work’ and Luck is no exception.
Completing the Triple Crown, so to speak, is Dustin Hoffman, another indicator of the strength of the material on display. While his contemporaries, the likes of DeNiro and Pacino, have long since descended into self-parody, Hoffman’s reputation as a fierce screen presence remains largely intact – Meet The Fockers notwithstanding. Here he’s cast in the role of Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a didactic ex-con, freshly released from the joint, with a venture in mind involving a casino development deal, and his driver, Gus’s, newly acquired license to own and race horses.
Also hovering around the track are John Ortiz’s duplicitous, legendary trainer, Turo Escalante, and Nick Nolte’s paranoid horse owner, Walter Smith, both of whom have got a secret to keep. As you might expect from Michael Mann, women don’t get much of a look-in, although that could soon change with Kerry Condon’s ambitious female jockey certain to make some waves. But it wouldn’t be Milch without a few ragtag losers, chancers, and schemers chasing that brass ring. To that end, Sunday’s pilot offered up a quartet of first class degenerates who – as luck would have it, no pun intended – strike it rich to the tune of $2.6 million. Personally, we can’t wait to see that go all different kinds of horribly wrong.
True to the form of all involved the performances are suitably understated and uniformly stellar. The gorgeous, orange haze of the laid back sunny track, juxtaposed with the blistering exhilaration and flying dirt of the POV racing footage is textbook Mann. The dialogue is rich, densely layered, and packed with jargon and lingo indicative to the world. As was with Deadwood it’s difficult to absorb right away, and there is a sort of wall of understanding that you need to pass through with it, but the results are certainly worth the patience of those that persevere. It might be right out of the gate, but we’re definitely along for the ride.