Philip Winchester, Wesley Snipes

Were there a need-based waiting list for Hollywood career makeovers, Wesley Snipes’ name would be at or near the top of it. He parlayed the critical notices he earned for his flashy, confident performance in 1991’s New Jack City into a robust career as an action star in such blockbusters as Passenger 57 and the Blade trilogy. But while Snipes’ name was appearing on marquees, it wasn’t appearing on annual tax filings, and he wound up being sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion at a point when his career had already hit the straight-to-video skids.

Snipes made a brief appearance in The Expendables 3—an ensemble-focused franchise in which every appearance is brief—but his starring role in NBC’s new thriller The Player is his highest-profile gig since his release from prison, as well as his series television debut. The Player could spark the Wesley Snipes renaissance, but it won’t be because of the show itself. It will be because Snipes excels in the role, effectively reinventing himself as the next James Spader, a name actor hamming it up in television roles that would seem beneath his abilities if he wasn’t having such a good time playing them.

Snipes plays Mr. Johnson, the tucked-and-tailored mystery man behind a shadowy organization of wealthy gamblers who bet on whether crimes can be prevented before they happen. The cabal conducts its business in a secret suite of a Sin City casino aided by Mr. Johnson, the pit boss of the game of chance that combines the fun of poker with the illicit thrills of a snuff film. If the setup sounds like Person Of Interest: Las Vegas, that’s because that’s essentially what The Player is. Mr. Johnson is to The Player as Michael Emerson’s Finch is to Person Of Interest, the puppet master behind the high-tech enterprise, but Johnson has surprisingly agile martial arts skills for what is essentially a glorified actuary. Johnson is the perfect role for Snipes, who shrewdly follows the Spader model of career rebranding. Even before Spader became NBC’s ace in the hole on The Blacklist, he had already distinguished himself as the wisecracking yet menacing sage in Boston Legal and The Office. Snipes takes a similar tack with Johnson, who uses his arch sense of humor to reinforce his dominance.

The Player occupies an overcrowded space, what with a half-dozen shows angling to become the next Blacklist. It certainly doesn’t help the optics that the show stars Philip Winchester, whose former Strike Back comrade-in-arms Sullivan Stapleton is top-lining NBC’s Blindspot, the network’s other attempts to catch a second bolt of lightning in the same bottle. Winchester plays Alex Kane, a former Special Forces officer turned private security consultant who wants to live a normal, peaceful life, as television’s ex-military men are wont to do. His blood lust is awakened in a profoundly clichéd way—at the risk of spoiling the “surprise,” as long as there are refrigerators, there will be women in them.

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Kane is drafted by Johnson and his “dealer,” Cassandra King (Charity Wakefield), to serve as the title character, whose job it is to prevent crimes as eccentric oligarchs—presumably the same kind that bid on kidnapped American blondes—take odds on his likelihood of success. Kane, of course, is motivated by his need for vengeance, and Johnson and King promise to use their resources to apprehend Kane’s foe.

These are all thankless roles for the entire cast, including Damon Gupton, the Joss Carter of this particular Person Of Interest knockoff, whose permanent scowl practically guarantees he’ll be in on the game before the season is out. Winchester doesn’t fare as well as Snipes does, because his character is solely defined by the same emotional wounds that have been inflicted upon action heroes in every movie since the beginning of time. Wakefield’s character is similarly thin, though she seems to be having much more fun then Winchester, and her character, a sexy British fembot, promises more than meets the eye.

If you’re going to replicate a vaguely sci-fi procedural, you could do a lot worse than Person Of Interest, which seemed as stiflingly high-concept as The Player upon its arrival, but has since grown into one of network television’s most interesting and layered thrillers. But because The Player is wandering into such well-explored territory, it feels limp at its liveliest. It serves as an ironic reminder of how Hollywood’s derivative business is conducted. The show about high-stakes gambling is evidence of NBC’s risk aversion. Don’t hate The Player, hate the game. Well… maybe also hate The Player.

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