The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie Is Mobster Cinema At Its Most Artistic
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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is not your typical casino mobster film. Not at all. This movie from 1976, directed by auteur John Cassavetes, is an art film through and through. Most films featuring mobsters and gangsters and casinos and the mafia would prefer to be in your face and gratuitous, either exhausting all possible camp from the material or subverting the genre with innovations in treatment and performance. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie does neither; it prefers to do its own thing, and it doesn’t care at all whether you can keep up with it.
Well, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie does have gratuitous elements in it. There’s action (because how could you be a crime film without guns blazing) and a little sex (the seedy underworld necessitates a little bawdy nudity, which is even seen in a trailer I found on YouTube). Every little bit of the movie comes straight from the cultural era of its 1976 release, and it’s glorious in a rather understated way. That’s just how these films are, to be honest.
Ben Gazzara plays the protagonist Cosmo Vitelli (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie marks Gazzara’s second collaboration with director Cassavetes, by the way) who is a club owner and army veteran somewhere in California (possibly Los Angeles). Vitelli owes a gambling debt to someone associated with the local mob. Things get fishy in the film as the little mobster brings in even bigger gangsters to mess with Vitelli’s small business by offering Vitelli an all-expenses-paid gambling night at the local mob casino, which is actually a set-up to put our protagonist in even more debt. That debt, which he inevitably takes on, is used as leverage for the mob to hire Vitelli as a hitman to take out what he believes is a Chinese bookie. (You know, like the title of the film implies.)
It turns out that the “Chinese bookie” Vitelli was sent out to kill is the big boss of the local Chinese mob. The American mobsters who hired Vitelli’s services actually sent him on a suicide mission in order to hit two birds with one stone.
However, in true art film fashion, the movie ends in a pretty ambiguous note as it is never shown whether Vitelli lives or dies in the ensuing chaos of the gunfights. Instead, it’s left to the film’s viewer to make his or her own assumptions on how The Killing of a Chinese Bookie‘s story concludes, perhaps writing up their guesses in reviews like this one. (You’d be surprised at how many independent ouvres choose to go this route; but then, real life is never that straightforward or conclusive until a person actually dies.)
All reviews seem to agree that Cassavetes the auteur’s most accessible work is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. One would easily surmise, upon first viewing, that it really isn’t your typical action film. I keep saying that, but it’s true. And if you’ve never even watched a low-key, hipster piece of auteur work, then your conventions as to what kind of other films could be made out there will be shattered. It’s like listening to music that isn’t mainstream, like the deeper ends of, say, jazz. The beats are different, the writing of the script isn’t hammy at all, and everything is grounded on the reality of life, not the escapist fantasies of Hollywood cinema. It’s not exactly classified as noir, but it does take in some elements from that genre as well.
If you’re looking for a gangster film that you could easily rent for a Saturday night in with popcorn, then The Killing of a Chinese Bookie may not be that movie for that purpose. It’s a film you go watch at art houses, at independent film festivals, in film class. It’s the kind of movie that gets a thousand-word essay for a review in class. It has very little to do with casinos and gambling, much less with actual Chinese bookies.
It, like most realist cinema, is just a film that examines people, human nature, and the way they are and why they make the decisions they make.
Like why the war-torn Cosmo Vitelli chooses to find a family within his roster of showgirls, or why he is a compulsive gambler. Sometimes it makes no sense, just as life and people make no sense in their irrationality. It’s some really deep stuff, so don’t let the rather badass title mislead your expectations for a fun romp. (Then again, if you don’t read reviews like this, then there’s very little point in warning you beforehand.)
But in the end, should you watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie? I believe everyone deserves a good, thorough tickling of the brain every once in a while, so if you’re up for a mental challenge, I suggest you go for this film. The action and the blazing guns and the sexy women are only accessories to the cinematic and narrative merits of he movie’s story. Perhaps you may find some sort of emotional release from it, or perhaps it may just leave you more confused at the end than you were at the beginning. But give it a chance. Take this review’s word for it. Take that gamble, the same way Vitelli did, and you may come away with something meaningful.
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