The career trajectory of Wesley Snipes has been something of a whirlwind. The actor made a huge splash in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with roles in such films Major League, Mo’ Better Blues, New Jack City and White Men Can’t Jump, a disparate collection of parts united by the redoubtable force of Snipes’ charisma. Snipes was one of those actors who could do comedy, drama and action, all with equal amounts of bravado. By the time he began what would become his signature role as Blade, Snipes, a lifelong, black belt martial artist, had pared his career down solely to stoic action-hero parts, jettisoning most of the jubilant personality he displayed earlier in his career. After the Blade trilogy came to an end, Snipes wound up in the direct-to-video ghetto before tax issues landed him in prison.
The Wesley Snipes that emerged from incarceration feels like an actor reborn, with the palpable joy of performing restored to him. Last year’s Expendables 3 wasn’t terribly memorable, but Snipes’ performance in it was something of a revelation. He was revitalized, he was fun again. That same level of enthusiasm carries over to The Player, the new NBC series in which Snipes plays a key role. As Mr. Johnson, a mysterious string-puller behind a clandestine, high-stakes gambling ring, Snipes brings a large amount of theatrical flair to his role, his lines brimming with a haughty playfulness. Johnson is a cool customer, smoothly rattling off exposition, but Snipes gives many of his lines an offbeat spin, cluing us into the fact that not only is Mr. Johnson highly amused by the part he plays in his world, but that Snipes is as well.
Of course, Snipes is not the star of The Player. That honor goes to Strike Back’s Philip Winchester, who plays Alex Kane, a former FBI agent with a rogue streak who now works as a security expert in Las Vegas. Kane is the sort of action-heroic guy who will leap off a building impulsively and use a conveniently placed rope to crash through a window and thwart a villainous plot. But Kane gets into hot water when his on-again/off-again ex-wife is murdered right in front of him, the killer leaving enough circumstantial evidence to mark Kane as the prime suspect. Evading capture and setting off to find the real killer and clear his name, Kane comes into contact with Cassandra (Charity Wakefield), an associate of Mr. Johnson’s, who pulls Kane behind the curtain and briefs him of their operation.
Johnson has at his disposal an entire network of technological advances that allow him to predict crimes before they happen (shades of Minority Report, except without bald people in swimming pools). Rather than use these tools to better the world, Johnson has developed an elaborate game, with a shadowy cabal of the world’s wealthiest men as its participants. These men bet on the outcomes of real-life crimes, with Johnson acting as the Pit Boss, Cassandra as the Dealer, and Kane now being marked as the prospective Player, the man who will attempt to solve those crimes. Kane wants no part of any of this business, but Johnson isn’t the sort to easily accept no for an answer. After ameliorating Kane’s problems with the law and promising the man vengeance for his ex-wife’s killer, Kane reluctantly agrees to play the game.
The Player is completely absurd, but a pretty good time. Unlike Blindspot, the other brand-spankin’-new NBC procedural starring a Strike Back actor, this show is intent on having fun, never taking itself terribly seriously. Rather than take for its inspiration The Blacklist, as has seemingly every other network series, The Player looks instead to Person of Interest, which at least hasn’t been ripped off nearly as extensively. The series offers a giddy rush of nonsense, an antidote to a television landscape tenaciously committed to being as dour as possible. It’s difficult to imagine any other network freshman setting an entire action sequence to a Hives song like it’s 2004, but The Player does, because it can, because it’s fun.
It’s difficult to label The Player as “must-see” television, much in the way NBC Thursday offering once were. It’s perhaps too lightweight and insubstantial to ever cut it as appointment television. Still, any show that makes both procedurals and Wesley Snipes enjoyable again is doing something right.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.