High Roller: The Stu Unger Story proves that if you take a gamble on a biopic, you're gonna lose…2 hours of your life.
Stu Unger, I learned from watching this movie, was a poker champion, who won the biggest major poker championship (didn't know about those either) two times, before losing all his winnings within a decade. But there's so much more to his life story—and it's all like something you'd see in a made-for-tv movie, which this is.
We begin with Stu (Michael Imperioli) sitting in a dark hotel room smoking. In the darkness is a mysterious stranger who asks to hear a story, so Stu takes us back. Picture it, New York, 1966. We begin with Stu's young years, learning how to play poker from his mom, and how to defend himself from his dad. Young, Jewish Stu befriends a whole bunch of gangsters, in particular, Vincent (Michael Nouri), who ends up being his surrogate dad. Stu's a whiz with a deck of cards, and is soon winning—and then losing—loads of money. He eventually has so many mobsters after him he has to run away to Las Vegas, because not even Vincent can continue to protect him. Once there, he gets involved with a previous opponent, Mr. Leo (Happy Days alum Pat Morita, who I think I'm seeing speak without an Asian accent for the first time ever), and is soon winning major tournaments. And while he's at it, he's making more enemies, and screwing up big time with Angela, his one true love from back home, played by Renee Faia—who I kept thinking reminded me of Cher, and then realized why. Because she played Cher in And The Beat Goes On, a movie I also reviewed. And the reason for his destroying his family life is because, not only is he addicted to gambling, he's addicted to women—and there's also a spiral into some drugs, too. But none of this tragic stuff is really intensely demonstrated, which makes it a rather plodding film. Of course, in the end of this memoir/mob movie/poker flick, we learn who the stranger in the hotel room really is.
What I liked about this movie was Michael Nouri, since it's nice to see him in a movie once in a while because I've always liked him and he just never got enough juicy roles. Other than that, this movie wasn't an action packed mob movie, long stretches of poker hands to fill time was boring, and Stu's life wasn't all that compelling to me. And although it began in the 60s and ends 3 decades later, the atmosphere of the movie never changed, so it felt like a timeless blanket that never paid any detailed attention to the decade that we were in at the moment. It was a very tame, and often lame, movie. But I guess when you're dealing with a person's actual life you can't really embellish for the sake of entertainment. This one's strictly for people who love the game of poker—and maybe mob movie fans, although that aspect was so watered down that you'll probably rather watch reruns of The Sopranos, considering there's some cast crossover in this film—including lead Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, who plays a buddy of Stu's in this film.
The film is in anamorphic 1:85:1. The film actually looks better in standard mode. Progressive scan had grain issues and no depth at all. Standard mode brought a little depth to the image, and less grain. The image overall is too dark, and the blacks bleed into each other, offering little definition. To fix this, there's an attempt at edge enhancement to bring some sharpness. The color levels were too high, and stuck out like a sore thumb from all the darkness. And the skin tones were quite orange. There are just little spatters of specks here and there, but nothing all that bad.
You have three options: stereo surround, 5.1 Dolby, and DTS. Go for the DTS. The rear speaker sound is set back nicely, the room is filled with sound, the front center is clean and sharp, and the bass is very responsive. Nice surround experience that completely envelops you.
"Select a Scene" offers 22 chapter breaks. You can put on English or Spanish subtitles if you have hearing issues or speak Spanish, respectively. There are online DVD-ROM links, which require installing an Interactual Player on your computer. DVD credits are hidden in the New Line icon on the main menu. Also on the disc are:
MORE FROM NEWLINE—Impressive 5.1 sound for the trailers, which include: After the Sunset, Dinner Rush, Ripley's Game, Blow, Knockaround..
MUSIC VIDEO—for soundtrack song "Yesterday" by Marc Eric. It's a rather pixelated experience, and the 2.0 stereo track has extremely heavy bass and no highs.
COMMENTARY by director A.W. Vidmer, actors Michael Imperioli and Renee Faia, and poker expert Vincent Van Patten—The director does the usual, talking about technical aspects of filming, but also about researching and dramatizing Stu's life. He also mentions deleted scenes, scenes that didn't make it to this disc. Michael and Renee throw in their two cents about making the movie when they appear on screen. Vincent Van Patten is an interesting addition. Aside from talking about the game of poker, he was also a friend of Stu Ungar's so he has the most interesting stuff to add about the man he knew.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story was made for cable TV, and it shows. It's an unenergetic movie that won't draw in anyone who's not a fan of poker or the man whose life it is about—because his life, if this film is accurate, doesn't sound much different than many of the other tragic celebrity lives we've heard about—in fact, watch Renee Faia's movie And the Beat Goes On, and it's about many of the same issues, just set to a different…um…beat.