'Luck' Review: HBO's Humdrum Horse Racing Saga Wastes Nolte, Can't-Miss Premise

Acclaimed television creator/writer David Milch’s latest HBO offering, “Luck” should be an easy favorite.

It’s about horse racing and the characters the sport attracts. It’s filmed largely at California’s Santa Anita race track and tells the story of racing from so many potentially fascinating points of view: gamblers, owners, jockeys and trainers. It stars a cast that on paper can’t lose, including Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and real-life Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Gary Stevens. The co-executive producer is Michael Mann, who understands light and sound and color as well as anyone in Hollywood.

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But that’s on paper. As bettors know, the horse with the winningest record, the best times, the richest purses and the bloodline for the distance doesn’t always win. There’s no such thing as a sure thing.

Stumbling out of the gate, “Luck” turns out to be a one-trick pony. It hurts to write that, because this show has the pedigree of a champion.

“Luck” begins with a peek behind the daily workings at a busy track. There’s the Peruvian trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) described in press materials as “brilliant but disreputable.” And there’s the hard-luck grinder Walter Smith (Nolte), a good horseman and a good man who deserves the big win.

There’s the clique of obsessive, desperate gamblers: Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Renzo (Ritchie Coster), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), and Lonnie (Ian Hart). And there’s the sad sack agent Joey (Richard Kind), the once-great jockey determined to pull his life back together (Stevens), and the eager young apprentice rider (Tom Payne).

What is supposed to carry this tale to the winner’s circle is the ominous appearance of Hoffman’s character, wealthy gangster fresh from prison Chester “Ace” Bernstein, and his loyal tough-guy driver Gus Demitriou (Farina), fronting as a horse owner for his felon boss. They have nefarious grand plans, and mayhem ensues.

Well, not really. It should, but it doesn’t. For long stretches, nothing ensues. Characters mope and horses go in circles while Milch indulges himself with his artistry.

Hoffman looks bored and wooden throughout, and Farina is never allowed to unleash the sparkling menace he’s capable of. As for Stevens’ acting, well, he’s a great jockey and deserves respect for a brilliant racing career.

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Robotic may be the best way to describe “Luck.” There’s no conflict, no depth. In their own way, the characters single-mindedly pursue predictable goals. Ace wants to take over the track, and he drifts through every scene with that label pinned to his lapel. The trainers want the best horse. The jockeys want to ride. The gamblers want to win. Some of it’s logical, but with nine hours to dig deeper, viewers deserve more.

“Luck” isn’t without bright spots. The biggest surprise is Nolte. He delivers an outstanding performance and reminds viewers of the great work he is capable of, playing a world-weary trainer who missed his shot. Kind plays his role as the good-hearted but pathetic loser with heartbreaking enthusiasm, the quartet of frenzied gamblers lope along gamely with the storyline even when situations make little sense, and Kerry Condon is endearing as Rosie, the exercise rider who dreams big.

Where performances stumble may not entirely be the fault of the actors. They are, after all, reading lines. For a man who spent so much of his life at horse tracks and proclaims a love for the sport and the atmosphere, Milch writes a story that is a painful exercise in drudgery. Even when characters win, they lose. Like a horse that snaps a leg just short of victory, Milch is there to trip up anyone who gets close. The cumulative effect keeps viewers at arm’s length.

Anyone who has enjoyed a day at the track will be baffled by this theater of dread. “Luck” is on a long, narrow course without twists or turns, and there’s never a payoff.

Milch’s previous HBO tour de force, “John From Cincinnati,” landed with a thud. A subsequent effort for the premium outlet never made it to the screen. Now “Luck” may hint that Milch’s is running out. An HBO subscription adds a chunk to the cost of the average cable bill. How long can his triumphant creation “Deadwood” carry him?

To be fair, for viewers who stick around through all nine episodes (hat tip to HBO for allowing reviewers all nine), “Luck” rallies down the stretch. The last two episodes pick up the pace and hint at better things ahead. But there’s more than the final furlong to a horse race, and a series should engage and reward viewers throughout its run. “Luck” does not.

“Luck” premieres at 9 p.m. EST tonight on HBO