Stop me if you'd heard this one before: Burt Reynolds plays Tommy Vinson, a washed-up poker champ who swore off gambling years ago after his addiction drained his bank account. Tommy discovers Alex Stillman (Bret Harrison), a cocky young star on the poker circuit. Seeing Alex's potential, Tommy offers to train the kid, introducing him to the intricacies of the profession and the joys of Vegas. After a falling out, the two wind up on opposite sides of the table, just in time for the championship game.
In their highly derivative, embarrassingly hollow poker drama "Deal," writers Gil Cates, Jr. (who also directed) and Mark Weinstock leave no cliché unturned, from the cheap set-up to the love interest (Shannon Elizabeth) who turns out to be more than expected to the finale, which not only lazily recycles a tired plot point but requires a shameful leap of logic to get there.
Most curious is the Tommy character. Reynolds does a fine job in the part; he looks a little bored (who wouldn't?) but otherwise manages to find the compassion in the washed-up card sharp's ways. Yet the screenplay fails the character on every level. Much is made early on of Tommy's addiction, yet once he picks up the cards, there's no mention at all of any such problems. When he says that he'll retire from gambling after the tournament, the movie believes him. Is the script really that uninterested in character depth? Are the writers really so thoughtless that not only do they ignore a major piece of Tommy's backstory, they essentially erase it to fit their own feel-good needs? Apparently, yes.
Everything else is just filler leading us to the final round of the tournament. Alex's training goes by in a blur (perhaps for the best, since the bland Harrison is a lousy leading man), the aforementioned Shannon Elizabeth subplot amounts to nothing at all, the stuff about Tommy's home life (with wife Maria Mason and pal Charles Durning furrowing their brows in concern) is too underwritten to matter, and all those cameos from real-life poker stars go nowhere, because, hey, since the movie already knows who'll make it to the final game, why bother wasting energy on suspense or drama?
Once we get to the final match, we might as well be watching one of those poker TV shows that fill up the cable networks' late night schedules. Cates shoots these scenes with all the verve of a bored ESPN-2 intern, while the screenplay wheels in sports commentators to explain (and re-explain) every single move our stars take. When the filmmakers try for tension - Tommy bets big without looking at his hand, for example - Cates' flat direction and the constant voiceover work saps the remaining energy from the moment.
It's so flat that we never get a good feel for the bursts of excitement that come from a real poker match. (We do, however, get plenty of that boring impatience that fills the rest of the game.) "Deal" is a drama where the script tells us every move through voiceover: "OK, if Tommy gets an ace, he wins this hand. He gets an ace. He wins. Dealer deals again." That's what passes for drama. Not only is this a shallow work, but it's a film that actively strives to avoid to be anything else.
Video & Audio
Once again, Fox has sent DVD Talk a watermarked DVD-R screener copy to review, instead of the final product. As such, I cannot comment on the video quality. If a retail version arrives, I will update this review accordingly. Until then, all I can do is mention that the film will be presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer.
There's not much difference between the Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks. The surround mix keeps all the action up front, although it's a slightly fuller sound than the stereo mix. Dialogue and music are clear on both. Spanish and French 5.1 dubs are included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
"PokerStars Presents: Winning Big at Texas Hold 'Em with Isabelle Mercier and Greg Raymer" (13:21) finds two poker celebs offering game tips, along with the obligatory plugs for the PokerStars website. Beyond the expected introductory course, Mercier and Raymer discuss the art of bluffing and betting, and Raymer runs down the mechanics of the final hand that won him the championship in 2004. They then play a quick hand, commenting on their thoughts as they wager. Presented in 1.78:1 flat letterbox.
A trailer for "Street Kings" is also included. A separate batch of previews plays as the disc loads.
For a movie that's all about the rush of the game, "Deal" is woefully lacking in excitement. And there's just nothing here you haven't seen a dozen times before. Skip It.