Directed by Wayne Kramer, starring William H Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, Ron Livingston, Arthur J Nascarella, Shawn Hatosy and Estella Warren.

There are many who have longed for Alec Baldwin to do the right thing and scorch a cinema screen with a performance as great as his show-stealing cameo in 'Glengarry Glen Ross'. Something as powerful, something as menacing and something as, well, quotable. Now a wish has been fulfilled and as demonic casino boss Shelly Kaplow, Baldwin makes 'The Cooler' his movie. Nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, Baldwin lost out to Tim Robbins in 'Mystic River', but if there was a golden gong going for the best villain in years, no movie fan would bet against him.

In the rougher and readier downtown area of Las Vegas, Shelly runs the old school (from the decor to the beatings) Shangri-La. And his most valued employee is his 'Cooler', Bernie Lootz (Macy) - a seemingly terminal loser whose bad luck rubs off on any punter he comes in contact with. Winning streaks turning to losing ones, Shelly's little empire remains intact and Bernie goes home to his little motel room as lonely as ever. That is until cocktail waitress Natalie (Bello) starts taking an interest in him and his luck starts changing. Trouble is, so does everyone else's: Bernie can't 'cool' tables anymore and the punters start raking in the cash. And all this happens just as Shelly's boss Nicky 'Fingers' Bonnatto (Nascarello) and hotshot number cruncher Larry Sokolov (Livingston) decide they want to turn the Shangri-La into a more family-oriented place. If Bernie can't believe that his life could start over, then Shelly's determined it will stay exactly the same.

Director Kramer's script relies too much on chance and coincidence to move the plot on, but what you're really watching 'The Cooler' for is not the story but the performances - and it doesn't disappoint. Few can wear put upon so well as Macy, Bello makes you wonder why she doesn't get more big roles, the supporting cast are all strong and then, sitting at the top of the heap, there's Baldwin. In a film which, behind the gambling, is all about male rage and insecurity, Baldwin's Shelly gives masterclasses in both. Whether it's trying to destroy Bernie's happiness, dispensing crowbar-to-knee justice to a card sharp or just talking nice to someone (a rarity), this is a performance dripping in charisma and spite. Shelly may hate himself deep down but you'll love every minute he's onscreen.

As for Macy, you'll cheer him over every hurdle as the decent and docile Bernie. His love affair with Bello's battle-scarred waitress moves a little too quick to be credible, but as a pair of slaves stuck in a kingdom they're scared to leave, they make a great couple. It's arguable whether two more high profile actors would've been willing to tackle the sex scenes here and
even more doubtful that they could make Bernie and Natalie such believable characters - even when their circumstances aren't.

The odds of things falling so much in someone's favour like they do in 'The Cooler' are ridiculously remote, but this neon fairytale is worth throwing your money away on.

Harry Guerin