The unbridled success of another HBO production, the horseracing drama Luck (Sky Atlantic, Saturday) has been tempered by the fact that two horses had to be killed after sustaining injuries during filming. This knowledge cannot but qualify the pleasure of watching the lavish production. In an age when animation and CGI dominate media output, such a waste of life is simply not necessary. Since it stars Dustin Hoffman as a mafia boss just out of jail and looking for revenge, one can only hope no one ends up with a real horse's head in their bed.
The pilot episode ended with plenty of excitement, with a gang of disreputable punters celebrating a $2m win on a "Pick Six" at the Santa Anita track – and with a horse snapping a leg in the last race. The beast is euthanised on screen, the moment tenderly rendered after being incorporated into the script. Thankfully, last night's second instalment was dull by comparison. Nobody, or nothing, died.
HBO's other sporting saga, Friday Night Lights, began a couple of weeks ago with a serious injury to a high school quarterback. For this the programme-makers should be applauded because the accident highlights concerns within the professional ranks about the hits that players have to take and the effects upon them in later life – all the more poignant in the case of a schoolboy.
More than 300 former players or their spouses have brought lawsuits against the NFL, blaming them for negligence over concussion-related dementia and brain disease.
While it was never the intention of Luck's makers to similarly portray the controversy over horses hurt and killed by the sport of kings, they proved the point inadvertently.
As with Friday Night Lights, the action sequences in Luck are mightily impressive where usually the footage tends to let down sporting dramas drastically. But where at first it thrilled the senses to see the horses' limbs in glorious motion and hear the thundering hooves – all executed with panache under the direction of Michael Mann – after that first episode it has become hard not to watch the races through your fingers, especially given the knowledge that another horse died (in episode seven, for those who want to avoid it).
It's all very well saying that these things happen in racing and so this is authentic, but the fact remains that none of it needed to happen. Unlike the young footballers and their slow-motion ballet of bruises, the horses don't have any say in proceedings. No one told them it was only a film.
As with the NFL, though, a lot of money is at stake and broadcasting executives don't want to take a big hit themselves. Mann is a heavy hitter in Hollywood, making such box office belters as Heat, Ali, Collateral and The Last of the Mohicans. Then there's the small matter of Hoffman, along with fellow A-lister Nick Nolte and a paddock of supporting stars.
But Hoffman mumbles along in that purse-lipped way of his and Nolte is getting so gruff that he sounds like Tom Waits on a bad day. It takes a while to begin to decipher the dialogue, and even when you do hear what they are saying, it tends to be in the terminology of racing and betting, which is impenetrable to the uninitiated. Then again, if the trainer Turo Escalante is given lines like "Holy cow! That horse run very good", maybe it's not worth straining to hear the words anyway.
Luck's catchphrase, ironically, is "Leave nothing to chance". As the awards season reaches its frantic dénouement in Tinseltown, one thing is for sure: Luck would win every TV gong going for animal cruelty.
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