The Player drops the viewer into the midst of a kidnapping unfolding in Las Vegas, the city of sin that’s introduced here with the usual sleazy, over-saturated, network-crime-show pillow shots that suggest Nike commercials scored to dubstep. Tough-guy dialogue informs us that Alex Kane (Philip Winchester) is a security consultant who is, like the heroes of most TV shows, the best of the best of his chosen profession. Clueless security people guide a rich, imperiled Middle-Eastern family through their luxury Vegas suite, while Alex appears out of nowhere like a super-suave phantom, schooling his colleagues on their short-sightedness. A window might be 20 stories off the ground, he says, but it’s still a vulnerable point of entry, which Alex soon proves when he crashes through it to pummel a henchman with a priceless bottle of red wine. Seemingly seconds later, Alex’s estranged wife, Ginny (Cara Buono), is dead, murdered by the mysterious cabal who attempted the hit on the connected family. Alex is soon wanted for her murder, which leads to a remarkably rapid succession of shoot-outs and near-death escapes.
This approach is clearly intended to push us quickly past the expositional handholding that mars most TV pilots—a shrewd strategy that sort of works despite the anonymous mediocrity of the set pieces. Most of the action scenes are staged in forgettable shaky-cam setups that barely telegraph a workable sense of spatial coherence, let alone inspire active awe or exhilaration. But a high-concept hook, fusing The Fugitive with David Fincher’s The Game, is promisingly bonkers, and the show’s writers keep things constantly moving. There’s always something just around the corner, whether it’s a divertingly absurd motorcycle raid on a villain’s temporary hideout or the revelation of a secret society of rich gamblers who manipulate Alex into serving as their “player” in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse.
The Player also understands the most efficient, palatable way to present audience-orienting information: by hiring a slumming, long under-seen star to deliver it. Here, this duty’s assumed by Wesley Snipes, who looks terrific in his sveltely bureaucratic suits while explaining to Alex the rules of these gamblers who control every law-enforcement agency in the world. Calling himself Mr. Johnson, the “pit boss” of this organization, Snipes’s character would appear to serve as the Big Bad who prevails over Alex’s blossoming crisis as well as a potential warped sibling/father figure. A bit bland by himself (he has Nathan Fillion’s lantern jaw, but little of the latter’s distinctly humble comic timing), Winchester comes into his own when sparring with Snipes, the two reveling in their narratively schematic game of verbal mano a mano. The Player is pulp trash with an admirable sense of its own disposability, running through gimmicks nearly as efficiently as Alex plows through requisitely faceless thugs.