If you’ve spent any time around a racetrack, you know that the so-called “sport of kings” is rife with cinematic possibilities. In the right hands, all those colorful characters — from the jockeys and trainers to the rail birds and gamblers — would spring to glorious, vibrant life.
So when word came that HBO was developing a horse-racing drama called “Luck,” with the writing of David Milch, the direction of Michael Mann and a cast led by Dustin Hoffman, it was cause for great anticipation. How could a triple-crown of talent like that not produce a wire-to-wire winner?
But somehow, it didn’t. Despite its impressive bloodlines, “Luck” is a real plodder — a maddeningly deliberate series that stalls right out of the gate and never quite makes up lost ground. So, despite some solid performances and extraordinary visuals, we’re left with what might be the midseason’s biggest letdown.
As the nine-episode series opens, Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Hoffman) is being released from federal prison into the care of his driver, Gus (Dennis Farina), who fronts as the owner of a $2 million Irish thoroughbred recently purchased by Ace. Apparently, Ace has taken the fall for some of his colleagues, and he’s setting up a payback scheme somehow tied to this horse.
Exactly what that scheme is remains vague through the opening hour and beyond. In fact, the laborious pilot episode spends a scant amount of time with Hoffman’s tightly wound character. Instead, it meanders this way and that, introducing an array of other folks, including — but certainly not limited to — a grizzled horse owner (Nick Nolte), a disreputable trainer (John Ortiz), a stammering jockey agent (Richard Kind), a track veterinarian (Jill Hennessy) and a quartet of degenerate gamblers (Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, Jason Gedrick and Ian Hart).
Fans who have seen Milch’s masterworks (“Deadwood”; “NYPD Blue”) and flops (“John From Cincinnati”) know he’s a writer with a taste for arcane dialogue and a keen eye for scruffy, flawed characters. We also know that he likes to take his time and defy convention. When he’s on his game, it’s a marvelous thing to behold, so you’re tempted to give him some slack. At least for a while.
But with “Luck,” Milch, who owns horses and has spent much of his life around racetracks, displays an almost abusive disregard for viewers who are new to this world. Characters pop up on the screen with little or no context, often uttering muddled and indecipherable bits of dialogue. Meanwhile, scenes trickle out in haphazard fashion, failing to gain traction along the way.
Moreover, Milch’s inability (or refusal) to build from a core character (Hoffman’s Ace) and expand outward from there feels like a huge mistake. Imagine “The Sopranos” with a pilot episode in which you never really get to know Tony Soprano. As for the other characters, he never really gives us a strong reason to care about them.
It’s a scattershot approach that ultimately undermines what is admirable about “Luck,” including some gorgeous photography. Mainly shooting at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, Mann positions his cameras in the thick of the action. As thundering hoofs kick up clouds of dust and the adrenaline rush kicks in, you’ll practically feel like you’ve been plopped into the saddle.
But pictures, no matter how enthralling, need a story. Mann and Milch reportedly had some run-ins over creative differences while shooting the pilot, and there’s no way of knowing if their feuds had a major impact on what ultimately wound up on screen.
But I’d like to think that if someone had been able to put a bit between Milch’s teeth and rein him in, “Luck” would have provided a much more rewarding payoff.
9 p.m. EST Sunday