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(2002) (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Max Von Sydow) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: A former protégé enlists the aid of a new recruit to battle his former master in a high-stakes game of luck.
Samuel Berg (MAX VON SYDOW) is the owner of a lucrative but remote casino whose string of luck extends back to being the sole survivor of a concentration camp. In the bowels of his gambling establishment, he runs an underground, but high-stakes game of luck where he's yet to lose. Those who do, however, not only forfeit possession of those they "own" - signified by photos of those people - but also their lives.

Federico (EUSEBIO PONCELA) is Samuel's protégé with the ability to remove anyone's luck via a simple touch of the hand, a measure that comes in handy when an unknowing gambler hits a winning streak. When he wants to break free of Samuel, however, the master uses the same tactic on him, thus rendering him powerless.

Years later, Federico is still searching for a recruit that he can use to do battle with Samuel. He thinks he's found that person in Tomas Sanz (LEONARDO SBARAGLIA), the sole survivor of a major airline crash. Discovered with stolen money taped to his body, Tomas is put under police custody at a hospital, but Federico manages to get him out.

He then introduces him to the secret world of high-stakes luck games and puts him into various elimination round challenges against other lucky opponents, such as Alejandro (ANTONIO DECHENT) the bullfighter, to determine who will next battle Samuel. At the same time, local cop and fellow lucky survivor, Sara (MONICA LOPEZ), is hot on the trail of those behind such contests, while Tomas' girlfriend, Ana (PAZ GÓMEZ), is also under watch.

Facing various games of luck and the threat of losing Ana to one of the winners, Tomas sets out to battle Samuel and find out who's the luckiest man alive.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Considering the enormous quantities of money at stake, it's no surprise that casinos around the world employ many people and devices to watch for and catch those who may be cheating them. That's less of a concern for the rarely seen back room betting or non-dealer games, but there's little owners can do in any case if "Lady Luck" has decided to pay a particular player a visit.

Of course, if there were a way to siphon such luck, the odds would be even more in favor of the house. That's part of the fun and mostly engaging premise of writer/director Carlos Fresnadillo's feature film debut, "Intacto." In the dramatic thriller, not only is there a person who can indeed suck players dry of their luck while they're hot, but there's also something of a Jedi knight hierarchy regarding that mysterious element.

Those who possess such luck rather than "the force" participate in various contests and matches where they're not playing for money, but rather for ownership of others. There's also the chance to battle the "Master," but the stakes are a bit more serious than simply losing one's shirt.

Working from an original idea he concocted with co-screenwriter Andres M. Koppel (also making his feature film debut), Fresnadillo (who received an Oscar nomination for his short film "Esposados") has fashioned an intriguing film that's far from perfect, yet manages to be undeniably unique, fascinating and occasionally mesmerizing.

Films about or just set in casinos seem to be a dime a dozen, but this effort is more interested in exploring various aspects of what constitutes luck. As it unfolds and presents various characters who've managed to survive (often alone) varied personal tragedies or full-fledged disasters and horrors, viewers are apt to be reminded of M. Night Shyamalan's heady but pokey "Unbreakable."

While the two films have similar themes and subject matter, Fresnadillo is after something different from that Bruce Willis/Samuel L. Jackson flick. In essence, this one is interested in exploring how various people respond differently to experiencing fortune, fate and chance.

Samuel - played with terrific gravity by Max von Sydow ("Minority Report," "Snow Falling on Cedars") - is a concentration camp survivor who hasn't forgotten the past and is now the grand wizard of luck. Federico -- Eusebio Poncela ("Matador," "Arrebato") - was once his lucky protégé, but he's since fallen from grace and is now looking for his own student to train for vindictive purposes.

He ends up choosing Tomas - nicely played by Leonardo Sbaraglia ("Nowhere," "Burnt Money") -- the young but lucky thief and plane crash survivor who's introduced to this bizarre world. Meanwhile, Monica Lopez ("Los Peores Anos de Nuestra Vida," "Todo es Mentira") plays a cop who's still dealing with being the lone survivor of an accident that claimed the lives of her family while investigating the aftereffects of the luck-based behavior.

There's obviously a lot at play here. The various characters and subplots certainly prevent boredom from ever setting in, while the ending is always in doubt, thus avoiding the "I saw it coming" curse. Even so, the film could have been so much more with a few tweaks here and there and more of an overall fleshing out.

Despite the intriguing premise, the material occasionally teeters above falling into the realm of silliness and preposterousness rather than steadfastly being "real" and completely believable in its own universe. Thankfully, it never plummets into that cinematic abyss, but it does need some suspension of disbelief to work.

Not all of the contests or games of chance are as clever, imaginative or gripping as they should be. That said, some of them - including the Russian roulette inspired ones and a blindfolded, full-speed dash through the thick woods - are just that.

The biggest omission, however, is in not getting the viewer to care about some or at least one of the characters. Despite most of them being interesting in concept and having experienced life-changing and defining moments, none of them ever engage our hearts.

In addition, there isn't enough depth regarding how all of the characters - or the film for that matter - feel about the state of luck/destiny/fate in the world and their lives. As a result, we're merely removed spectators rather than cheering participants who should worry about or find the various outcomes pleasing or at least relieving.

Had those elements been in place, this might have been a brilliant knockout of a film. As it stands, it's certainly intriguing and occasionally engrossing. However, it's missing that extra something special to make it more than a diversionary cinematic offering. "Intacto" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2002 / Posted January 3, 2003

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