Sydney (Philip Baker Hall - Midnight Run ) is a poker-faced professional gambler with a soft heart for a hard luck story. He plays guardian angel to unlucky John (John C. Reilly - Days of Thunder) and a hooker, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow - Seven), whom he grows to love like family. When John's andClementine's honeymoon night leads to a disastrous hostage situation, Sydney takes care of it, as usual. But when slick casino pro Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson - Pulp Fiction) threatens to reveal a secret from Sydney's past that could destroy his relationship with the newlyweds, Sydney decides to hedgehis bets and not leave anything to chance.
Before hitting the big time with his second film Boogie Nights
, young filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson impressed critics with this deftly conceived, low-budget film noir chamber piece. With its minimalist plot, deliberate pacing, and brief, but shocking bursts of violence, Hard Eight
won't please everyone, but Anderson and his first-rate cast were clearly working on the same authentic wavelength. It's a mystery at first why a solemn professional gambler (Philip Baker Hall in a captivating performance) cares for a down-and-out loser (John C. Reilly) and a dimwit, Reno cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow). But his motivations become clear--and the movie packs a quietly effective punch--when the gambler faces blackmail by a small-time crook (Samuel L. Jackson). This unheralded film seemed like a closely kept secret itself, until it showed up on the 1997 top-10 lists of several prominent critics. In tandem with Boogie Nights
, it marked the arrival of a new filmmaker whose talent is as impressive as that of that other '90s hotshot, Quentin Tarantino. --Jeff Shannon