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Deal **½
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

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Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em: Reynolds assesses his odds in Deal.

DEAL
(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Bret Harrison, Shannon Elizabeth, Maria Mason, Gary Grubbs, Charles Durning. Rated PG-13.

Deal is a movie made by poker enthusiasts for poker enthusiasts, and your appreciation of it depends largely on your passion for the game. For those who have passed hours of their lives playing virtual strangers online, or studying the strategies of World Poker Tour aces like Doyle Brunson or Phil Hellmuth, it may prove a worthy diversion, either for its brisk but predictable tournament action or its laughably earnest philosophy, which suggests that the game is just a metaphor for life. If poker’s not your thing, well, there’s always the welcome sight of Burt Reynolds, on hand as a retired legend hungry for one last score.

Unfamiliar with the rules of Texas Hold ’Em? No problem. Director Gil Cates Jr. (TV’s Joey) includes a brief tutorial before rushing into the thick of a plot too obviously inspired by The Color of Money. In that film, Paul Newman trained a young, cocksure pool hustler, played with self-satisfied swagger by Tom Cruise, to realize his big-time potential. Here, Tommy (Reynolds) does the same for Alex (Bret Harrison), a more modest sort who earns his lunch money chewing up small-time competition at the local card room.

Alex, who could use a little swagger himself, is gifted but naïve, having mastered the cards but not the psychological gamesmanship that distinguishes the game’s elite. Tommy, an old pro who has sworn off gambling for more than two decades, gives his protégé the edge he needs, but finds his own competitive fires stoked in the process. Will Tommy come out of retirement to chase down the only dream he has left, or will he be content on the sidelines?

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where Deal is taking us, or even how it plans to get there. The story, as conceived by Cates Jr. and first-time screenwriter Mark Weinstock, unfolds with admirable precision and an utter lack of suspense.

The third act plays out like a late-night ESPN broadcast, as Tommy and Alex test their tournament games against a handful of real-life poker luminaries, including Jennifer Tilly (inexplicably renamed Karen Jones) and Phil “The Unabomber” Laak. (World Poker Tour commentators Michael Sexton and Vincent Van Patten lend their voices to the proceedings, in an added touch of cinema vérité.) The outcome is never in question, of course, but for fans of the game, even simulated action is preferable to perfunctory drama.

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