2½ stars (out of four)
Al Pacino may well be the Michelangelo of alpha males, the superior craftsman of high-strung, barking-mad rulers of men.
Since 1983's "Scarface," alpha men have been Pacino's bread and butter in movies such as "Heat," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Scent of a Woman" and "The Devil's Advocate."
In director D.J. Caruso's "Two For the Money," Pacino plays a variation on this theme as Walter Abrams, a gambling addict who has found a loophole in his 12-step program.
He hasn't placed a bet himself in 18 years, yet he runs a sports gambling advisory service through 900 numbers and an oily cable show. Think of it as stock tips for betting men. Walter preys on the addictions of others, while feeding his own.
Matthew McConaughey plays Brandon Lang, Walter's protege and statistical superman whose career-ending injury on the college football field didn't squash his love of the game. He's become a win-picking machineand Walter's salvation.
As the star, he's also the least compelling character, overshadowed by Walter and his former junkie wife (the splendid Rene Russo). The married couple has survived vice only to build a small empire out of it but fail to see the moral implications. (Walter even passes out his business card at Gamblers Anonymous meetings.)
With Pacino artfully chewing the scenery, McConaughey does his best to make Brandon's transformation interesting, as he goes from failed athlete to John Anthony, his high-class sports broker alter ego. Money starts rolling, the stakes get higher and Brandon's winning streak starts to cool, then collapse.
The trailer, of course, tips you off to all this, revealing so much plot that it's difficult to imagine the movie has much more to give.
It does, however, mostly in Pacino's nuanced performance. Walter may be a familiar face in Pacino's gallery of volcanic personalities, but he and screenwriter Dan Gilroy add a magnetic, unstable mix of frailty and greed. He treats Brandon like his son but abuses him like a slave.
"If you want something from me, you're gonna have to rip it out of my talons!," Walter barks in the money sequence, just as Brandon realizes he's wagered too much on Walter as a new father figure.
What stays with you, however, is not only Pacino's vein-popping performance but the movie's unsavory, and perhaps irresponsible denouement. "Two For the Money" echoes Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" and its "Greed is Good" mantra, and Caruso essentially delivers a movie about gambling without consequences. Risk yes, consequences nonot for any of the main characters. It's a fairy tale, a con asking you to gamble the price of a movie ticket.
Is it a safe bet? Not really, but it's a compelling drama, if only a little hollow. For my money, Pacino's bark is ultimately better than "Two For the Money's" bite.
'Two For the Money'
Directed by D.J. Caruso; screenplay Dan Gilroy; cinematography by Conrad W. Hall; art direction by Willie Heslup; music by Christophe Beck; edited by Glen Scantlebury; produced by Jay Cohen and James G. Robinson. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: Rated R (for pervasive language, a scene of sexuality and a violent act).
Walter Abrams - Al Pacino
Brandon Lang - Matthew McConaughey
Toni Morrow - Rene Russo
Novian - Armand Assante
Jerry - Jeremy Piven
Alexandria - Jaime KingCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times