Minor spoilers for Premium Rush to follow.
Most action movies rely on an over-the-top MacGuffin — a memory stick with lists of undercover agents, a briefcase packing nuclear warhead codes, some wacky object from outer space that could result in humanity's demise — but like everything in the biker thriller Premium Rush, the thing everyone wants is personal. $50,000 represented by a paper ticket, a token Nima (Jamie Chung) hopes will get her son out of China but that corrupt cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) sees as his way out of debt with the Chinese mob.
Writer/director David Koepp has constructed his fair share of fantastical worlds (he's the screenwriter behind Jurassic Park and Spider-Man), but at the core of his stories are a researched realities. Premium Rush continues the trend with its exploration of biker culture, but even more fascinating is the short glimpse of an real life underbelly of New York City. Detective Monday's back room gambling exploits could have been a throwaway moment in the cycle-race-against-time chase movie, but instead, Koepp briefly pulls back the curtain on a real life parlor game that continues to be the competition of choice in modern Chinatown. You won't find secret Texas Hold'em games populating underground casinos. Instead, it's all about Pai Gow.
Koepp shows off the traditional Chinese betting game in all its fast-paced glory, laying out the scene with an understanding of the game that gives it authenticity, but without ever holding the audience's hand. The execution is a display of great filmmaking prowess, but it also prompts a simple question: How does the game work? Pai Gow's mechanics are similar to Blackjack, with swift action and equally rapid wins and losses. Two to eight players take on a banker and vie for the best hands, comprised of dominos with various number combinations. Each player receives four dominos to form two hands, the goal to strategically pair the tiles to form a high hand and a low hand. In this way it's like Stud poker — take what you get and hope for the best.
Monday loses massive amounts of cash in very little time because of sloppy betting and bad hands. In Pai Gow, there are four outcomes to each round. If the player's high hand is higher than the banker's and his low is lower and, he or she wins; If the player's high and low hands both fly under/over the banker's hand, he or she loses; If the player is able to win one hand and not the other, the round is a push and no one wins or loses anything. A little more thinking and a little less rage on the part of Monday probably could have helped him salvage a bit of his money.
Making Pai Gow a bit more complicated is the ranking system of the tiles. Unlike in most card games, the dominos in Pai Gow aren't taken at face value. The combinations of the 32 different tiles (which include 21 number combinations and 11 duplicates) are named and ranked. Two dominos with sixes on both side are called "Teens;" a pair including a one-four/two-three combination is referred to as "Chop Ng. The various other combinations all have their own moniker, but more importantly, they have their own ranking one through 16 that decide which pairs are high hands and which are low hands. Thus, a person can't step into a Pai Gow game with only the ability to count domino dots.
There's plenty of strategy involved with playing and betting in Pai Gow (entire books and websites have dedicated themselves to making sense of it all) and like most casino games, savvy owners are always looking to complicate it even more. In Premium Rush, we see the Pai Gow players rolling dice, an element of the game that randomizes the distribution of the tile stacks. It's like the Othello motto: "a minute to learn but a lifetime to master."
Watching real Pai Gow unfold is one thing, but Koepp gets it right when he suggests that illegal Pai Gow rings are a problem of today. Just this past May, New York City police took down a major gambling operation in Chinatown. A six-story building was raided by cops and the official report from the NYPD acknowledged that it was an on-going issue for the neighborhood:
...during the course of at least the last two years, the building has consistently hosted a group of illegal gambling operators offering various gambling options, including pai gow poker and computer-based slot machine games, in nearly half of the building's suites. The building itself has been modified to accommodate these gambling operations, including the creation of a ground floor slots room hosting computers dedicated to slot machine games and the installation of surveillance cameras throughout areas of the building dedicated to gambling.
Premium Rush is an over-the-top stunt movie, but it successfully flies by the seat of its pants thanks to a foundation of reality. Sometimes in a movie, it's the little things. In the case of Premium Rush, it's Pai Gow.
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures, Yellow Mountain Imports]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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