TV Review: Luck

A drama ringed around a horse track might sound about as much fun as watching a dog chase his own tail.

But with "Deadwood" creator David Milch, director Michael Mann and Dustin Hoffman in the saddle, "Luck" turns out to be a sure thing.

The HBO series encompasses a whirl of mobsters, gamblers, horse owners and jockeys.

Academy Award-winner Hoffman (who also serves as producer) stars as Chester "Ace" Bernstein, freed after three years in a federal prison.

Ace plans to build his empire by buying a racetrack and opening it up to gaming tables and slots. For now, he is forced to front his not-so-bright driver Gus (Dennis Farina) as the owner of a horse.

"I don't trust anyone, not even myself," he tells Gus. "You, I give a pass."

The circumstances behind his incarceration -- and what fuels his simmering rage -- start to come into focus in the Feb. 5 episode.

Elsewhere, four gamblers (Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, Ian Hart and Jason Gedrick, "Boomtown"), inept clods, pariahs to the rest of the world, are ill-equipped for the twist of fate headed their way.

Owner Walter Smith (Nick Nolte, "Warrior") worries over a prized horse with a dark past. Leon (Tom Payne) is an apprentice jockey, derided as a "bug boy," and is determined to prove his value.

There are so many characters here -- including Jill Hennessy ("Law & Order) as a vet -- that a few threaten to get lost in the dust.

"Luck" deserves at the least an Emmy for technical achievement for the filming of the horse racing sequences. The camera-men take you so deep into the action, you'll feel as if you're riding atop one of these magnificent creatures. Their strength, speed and rhythm become a glorious spectacle, and you'll understand why the characters here are so bewitched by them.

The humans aren't so bad, either. Hoffman is an actor's model of restraint.

A young doorman greets Ace back at his hotel: "I graduated, Mr. Bernstein."

"Good for you, kid. So did I," he says dryly.

One knock against Hoffman: There's just not enough of him onscreen.

Nolte, who sounds as if he's chewing gravel with every line, plays against type as a remorseful animal lover. As he did on the canceled-far-too-soon "Deadwood," Milch sketches out eccentric characters and memorable dialogue.

Watching this show reminds me how much promise "Boardwalk Empire" initially held. With Milch holding the reins, "Luck" seems a lock for the winner's circle.

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