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Worth A Look: 15%
Average: 15%
Pretty Bad: 15%
Total Crap: 5%

2 reviews, 28 user ratings

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High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
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by Erik Childress

"Imperioli's Performance Not Enough To Overcome This Script's 'Tell'"
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2003 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: Is it in the nature of every gambler to be a loser? I suppose since if they were winning it wouldn’t be gambling. But even the professionals never seem to be content with having the edge on everyone. Knowing more about their opponents then the cards they are holding, but less about the life in general that allows them the opportunity to enjoy it. Stu “The Kid” Unger could have just been another in the long line of movie characters following the same sad path in life, but his tale was a real one. Albeit, a pretty familiar one.

Stuey (Michael Imperioli), as he was affectionately known by his friends, had a talent for the cards since he was young, hustling the locals out of money while his father, a bookie in the local mob, approved of sticking up for himself but frowned on the extracurriculars. Dad’s boss, Vincent (Michael Nouri), took a shine to the kid would eventually look over him after his father’s death. (Similar to A Bronx Tale, the mother all but disappears.)

As Stuey grew up, his talents with the 52-shuffle increased, but only along with his taste of the odds he couldn’t control; namely horses. After getting in too far with the competing crews, Stuey is forced to head out to Las Vegas with a chance to repay his debt by winning a gin rummy tournament. The lure of Sin City was wide open to a magician like Stuey and soon he’ll find himself winning the World Series of Poker two years in a row and the youngest player ever at that.

Up-and-down goes the life of the gambler though and, unfortunately in the movies, usually pretty black-and-white. Writer/director A.W. Vidmer tries to get away from the cards and focus on his familial relationships. It’s nice to see a daughter express her love for such a character amidst the usual spousal scrapes. If there’s an original angle to take it would be the one to go with. But like a deadbeat dad, spending more time with her in the story would have enriched what that picture at the poker table meant to him in the final scenes.

We’ve seen the woman in a gambler’s life either not understanding their gift/addiction and during the scenes with Renee Faia’s Angela, like Stuey, we’d rather be hitting the tables. In fact, the more one knows about Stuey’s life, especially in the post-Vegas days, the further disappointment sets-in at how 101 the screenplay approaches the material. Dramatic liberties will always be enforced, details will be condensed and names changed to protect and avoid getting permission, but why tell the same ol’ story when the tiniest of elements can freshen it up?

Reading people, counting cards, however it was done, there’s only a little of it on display in Stuey. Here’s a man whose cockiness for showing off his talents got him locked out of underground games and eventually the big rooms in Vegas. Stu’s relationship with Bob Stupak (designer of Vegas’ Stratosphere) began when he counted down the final 156 cards of a six-deck shuffle without missing a beat. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship where Stupak would later bankroll Stuey. An anonymous benefactor who produced ten grand for Stu to re-enter the World Series at the 11th hour after nearly a decade out of the game is hinted at, but this interesting foray into his life is whittled down in scope to encounters with Mr. Leo (nicely played by Pat Morita) and a local player named DJ (Joe LaDue, also doing an admirable job.)

No magician wants to give away their tricks. Stuey’s initial encounter with Leo comes close and feeds into the legend, but like gamblers ourselves we want more; the big score. Films about card players always want to bluff us into buying the pot without ever seeing the full hand. Imperioli is giving us everything in his performance, finding a middle ground between the hothead he plays on The Sopranos and the bottomed-out addict he portrayed in Sweet Nothing. Like the best work that actors can accomplish, he garners our attention and draws us in to see the life through his eyes up to the telling shots of him trying to peer over the shaded glasses of the screenplay.

Vidmer tells a clean story from beginning-to-end. The usual hackneyed flashback retelling of a story works here as both a soulful reckoning (a testament to Imperioli’s performance) as well as a mystery to his eventual demise for those who don’t already know the circumstances. A respect for the man and his life is clear from Vidmer who avoids exploiting moments of drug abuse and hostility. As the poster tells us four things about Stuey (“Gambler. Addict. Loser. Legend”) it’s disappointing that the final film can only fulfill on three of the four. Not a bad percentage, but for the story of a man who continually bucked the odds of the card racket, 4-for-4 would have suited him best.

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originally posted: 06/27/03 08:31:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 CineVegas Film Festival. For more in the 2003 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/19/15 Dr Brian Sullivan b Been there and owe my life to GA! 4 stars
8/28/08 Alison I really enjoyed this movie and the acting! Heartbreaking ending had me in tears... 5 stars
4/28/06 Joel Matthew My Number 1 5 stars
12/02/05 Johnny 'Godfather' pay attention to the story, you realize how great this movie is. sorry its not ROUDNERS 5 stars
10/29/05 tank abbott this movie was a great insight into a toubled but great man . R.I.P 5 stars
8/22/05 Louie Good movie, but is it all true? 4 stars
7/26/05 E-man Rounders was fantasi, This was reality! a verry good movie! 5 stars
5/05/05 joe great movie for poker fans 4 stars
5/03/05 Drew Brass This movie was terrible, and anyone who says otherwise hasn't seen Rounders. 1 stars
3/27/05 malcolm mainly for poker fans, which i am. most others probably won't like it. 4 stars
2/18/05 BLAKE MADDEN Bad acting, awfu script, bad music. We want Stu Ungar, not Stu Soprano 1 stars
2/09/05 Brian Scott The amazing part of this flick is that for an indie there was not one amateur performance 4 stars
2/02/05 Marc Jacobs scared me so, I WATCHED MYSELF LIKE STU 5 stars
12/22/04 Rene Crowell A moving story well done 4 stars
6/01/04 Jon Unexpected big-budget feel to this independent - New Line was right to pick it up! 5 stars
1/12/04 john the best 5 stars
1/12/04 Sam the Sham Must See........ 5 stars
10/14/03 Janet Meek A must see 5 stars
8/22/03 Rob Joseph Better than CASINO!!!!!!! 5 stars
7/31/03 Robin Loeppke I've seen this film several times and have enjoyed it more each time I've seen it. 5 stars
7/29/03 Beth Compelling characters and story captivated audience throughout the film. 5 stars
7/26/03 Sue Wolford total entertainment from start to finish 5 stars
7/26/03 Graceann Hess Fantastic 5 stars
7/26/03 Phillip Bernstein Imperioli was AMAZING 5 stars
7/25/03 Mark Provocative, thoughtful... loved it! 5 stars
7/25/03 Bob Hess Imperioli's performance is remarkable 5 stars
7/25/03 Katy Hess an awesomely BIG film for an indie... 5 stars
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  20-Jul-2003 (R)
  DVD: 15-Mar-2005



Directed by
  A.W. Vidmer

Written by
  A.W. Vidmer

  Michael Imperioli
  Renee Faia
  Michael Nouri
  Joe La Due
  Steve Schirripa
  Pat Morita

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