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MGM // R // September 7, 2004
List Price: $25.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 4, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Three college pals go in on a bet: a thousand bucks on a football game, and maybe if the refs had downed a couple of No-Doz or hit LensCrafters before kickoff, things could have gone a different way. But nope, our intrepid heroes are out a grand, plus a hundred buck "vig" that goes to their bookies as a fee on their losing bet. As they drown their sorrows, Toby (Nick Stahl) is struck with inspiration -- it's more profitable to be a bookie than to be a gambler, and with so many dimwitted, overfunded fratboys bobbing around just waiting to be exploited, they could make a killing. To keep under the radar, they agree to cap bets at $500, and they take out an emergency student loan to the tune of a couple grand as startup capital. Toby worms his way into the good graces of popular sports medicine major Hunter McGuire (Rachael Leigh Cook), using her as an in to a frat party and, of course, falling head over heels for her. To avoid drawing too much suspicion to themselves, they pretend to just be satisfied customers of their Rat Pack-dubbed bookies and fork over business cards with an untraceable cellphone number printed on them.

The scheme works. Comp Sci major Casey (Lukas Haas) cobbles together software that handles every facet of the operation, and the tempermental Jude (Johnny Galecki) has the swaggering confidence necessary to keep this sort of underground business together. The cash starts rolling in almost immediately, and the three of them don't really have the restraint to resist taking advantage of their newfound wealth. A fifty thousand dollar car, a flat-panel HDTV, and a nasty coke habit are quickly acquired. As covert as they think they're being, people slowly start to pick up on the fact that something is going down, from a few bullies looking to pummel their way into a quick three grand to the campus rent-a-cops to...yup...the mob, who really don't appreciate a few punk kids muscling in on their territory. Jude convinces Toby to raise the stakes, and with a five-figure sum on the line, he tries to grease a few palms and bribe the basketball team into shaving a few points off what should be a laughably easy win. A budding romance and the tightknit group of friends are torn apart, and their lives are damn near threatened in the process.

"I put down twenty bucks you were gonna show up in a jersey and cleats."
Bookies is the sophomore directorial effort from Mark Illsley, the writer/director behind Happy, Texas. Bookies isn't as overtly comedic as his previous film, but it offers enough laughs that stockboys might have trouble figuring out if they should file this DVD under "Drama" or "Comedy". It's really a fairly deft mix of the two, spending little time on any sort of large comedic setpieces, but mixing in a few funny exchanges in some of the less dramatic moments. That includes the group deciding which Rat Packers to use as codenames ("Fuck you, then. Dean got more pussy than Sinatra anyway."), an investigation from a campus security officer prone to rattling off hip-hop lingo seemingly plucked from a Tag Team album, and Jude's obnoxious behavior at an upscale restaurant, barking out profanities and licking some indeterminate sauce off a blonde floozy. This approach accentuates the drama rather than undermine it, and it's especially effective when the two are juxtaposed closely together. The movie's frequently photographed with style, although "style" often means including more sped-up footage than a McG video. It's used to good effect, though, most memorably in one sequence that intercuts a foosball game with a coked-up Jude busting into someone's apartment and making his escape.

One clever touch is the movie's lack of reliance on exposition. Gambling lingo is spouted off without hesitation, and Bookies doesn't have some sort of expository outsider to ask "what do you mean that Philly's giving fifteen and a half?" or awkward sentence structure like "Golly, we have to get to the drop point before the vig, or the bookie's commission, doubles". You know what I mean, and if you don't, listen to any scene with Jami Gertz in Twister, where her character exists solely to have concepts and terminology explained to her-slash-the audience. Anyway, Bookies provides subtitles to explain what everything means without shoehorning it into the dialogue, and it even manages to have a little fun with the concept. Also, this only happens in a couple of scenes, so the subtitle-leery don't have to fret about reading all that much.

The ending manages to wrap things up in a satisfying conclusion without falling into any of the usual moral cliches that plague similar movies. The characters don't proudly and confidently take a "what we're doing is wrong" stance in the last reel, and they don't suffer any sort of ridiculous punishment where their lives are irrevocably devastated by the events of the past hour and a half. What happens is believable, and Bookies isn't afraid to leave at least one plot thread dangling. When I heard the words "one last bet" muttered as the last ten minutes ticked down, I audibly groaned, but don't fret -- it's not that kind of movie. Maybe a little corny, but still within acceptable boundaries.

As a movie, Bookies is a moderate success. The parts that are supposed to be funny are funny. The parts that are supposed to be tense are tense. When the screen faded to black and the end credits started their slow, upward crawl, I was left with both a fairly positive opinion and the absolute certainty that I would never watch this DVD again. Bookies is certainly a competently made film, free of any overwhelming flaws in the acting, writing, or direction that would inspire an armchair critic like myself to rant about at length. I like Bookies, but it lacks that hook...that indefinable special make me want to watch it again or enthusiastically recommend it to whoever happens to be in earshot. It's a smart, entertaining movie, but I think for most readers, a single viewing would probably be enough. This is definitely a movie I would say is best-suited towards a rental or a peek on premium cable.

"Place looks like a fuckin' Best Buy commercial."
Video: Bookies sports an average but solid 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The level of detail is decent, if somewhat unremarkable, bolstered by strong black levels. The film's palette appears to be accurately saturated, and film grain is unintrusive. I didn't spot any edge haloes, compression artifacts, speckling, or any of the usual DVD review suspects. Pretty typical for a release of a newly-produced film.

Audio: Bookies includes a Dolby stereo track encoded at a bitrate of 192Kbps. That's fine -- the material doesn't really lend itself to any sort of sonic assault, and if it did have a 5.1 mix, I inevitably would've said it sounds more or less like a stereo mix anyway. So, yeah, I guess they're just cutting out the middleman. Like the visual presentation, the audio doesn't really inspire any sort of multiparagraph tirades. Dialogue comes through without any major concerns, although it did sound a little too loud initially before I turned the volume on my receiver down a couple of notches. Various sound effects and the music used throughout are accompanied by a decent amount of bass. I'd be straining myself to find anything more to say about this soundtrack, so I'll just say it's fine and move on. There does seem to be a misprint on the packaging, though -- the flipside of the keepcase lists a stereo surround mix, but it's not flagged as such.

The DVD also includes a Spanish dub in stereo, French subtitles, and closed captions.

Supplements: The only extra is a full-frame trailer. Too bad director Mark Illsley didn't record an audio commentary -- his track for Happy, Texas seemed to be pretty well-liked. The DVD opens with a pair of other clips for Walking Tall and Dorm Daze, also featuring a set of static 16x9 menus and twenty-four chapter stops. No insert is provided.

Conclusion: Although I enjoyed Bookies, the lack of extras, limited replay value, and fairly hefty list price leave this DVD better suited towards a rental or keeping an eye out for on cable. Rent It.
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