Judge David Johnson was shocked—shocked!—to learn that years of gambling and womanizing and drug use aren't all that great for you.
Gambler. Addict. Loser. Legend.
This biopic tracks the life of Stu Ungar, a legendary card player who ripped through the Las Vegas ranks and won the World Series of Poker an unprecedented and unsurpassed three times straight. His life wasn't all aces, though.
Facts of the Case
Stu Ungar (Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos) earned sacks of money running the poker tables in Las Vegas. He gained national acclaim by three-peating at the World Series of Poker. But his rise to prominence was colored with gambling addiction, womanizing, and straight-up jackassitude.
Raised in a tough household by a temperamental father and a spineless mother, Stu showed a genius for all card games at an early age, regularly cleaning the pockets of men his father's age in side games. When he was old enough, he finally left his home behind and started to live off his gambling winnings. He was so prolific that card sharks from all around would come to challenge him and, more likely than not, succumb. One such big gun is Mr. Leo (Pat Morita, The Karate Kid), who is so impressed with Stu's skill (and irritated by his arrogance) that he invites "The Kid" to Vegas.
Forced to find a way to pay off an enormous horse-racing debt, Stu heads for Nevada. After settling his score, he decides to stick around and suckle a little more at the teat of Sin City. Eventually, Stu makes a serious name for himself, running with the big shots, pregnant with cash, and courting his future wife Angela (Renee Faia). But despite his luck and skill at cards, his hubris may finally bankrupt him.
Here's a decent little biopic that I'd never heard of. Actually, I had never heard of Stu Ungar either, so that's twice the pleasant surprise. While he may be a household name in big gambling families, I have to confess that I didn't even know there was a World Series of Poker, much less a guy named Stu who won a whole bunch of them.
Imperioli is great as Ungar. He infuses his characterization with so much arrogance it's a joy to watch. Watching Ungar belittle and embarrass his poker competitors, flagrantly cheat on his wife, and betray his friends over some potential sweet horse-racing action results in a complex guy you may not actually like. Stu Ungar is not a human being many people can sympathize with. There are elements in his story that could certainly strike a chord with some viewers—an unstable household, addiction, self-loathing—but how many of us are world-class poker players or make thousands of dollars in one hand of cards? As I watched High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story I never felt connected to Stu. This wasn't a fault of the filmmakers' or of Imperioli's—that's all top-notch execution of the character of Stu himself. He wasn't a very likable guy, he was cocky and superficial to the hilt, his profession was alien to me, he was involved in circumstances that I will never be privy too, yet the movie was compelling. Stu Ungar was an exhibit. He was a genius in his own right and a victim of self-abuse and his own demons. On that level this film worked well. Great performances all around, plus a sharp eye by writer and director A.W. Vidmer, added to the success.
The movie is not without flaws. It suffers from some slow pacing, and for a film about one of the greatest card players of all time there was far too little actual card playing, which, with the stakes as high as they usually are and no doubt populated by colorful characters, would make for enjoyable cinema. In fact, the championship games are so abbreviated, the most action on screen is the very last hand. The contrived ending didn't do much for me, either.
Like pretty much all New Line releases, this disc sparkles technically. Two 5.1 tracks are included—DTS and Dolby Digital—and while there's not a ton of stuff going on effect-wise, the film still sounds great. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is sharp. Colors are strong, and the picture is clean and free of noticeable defects. For extras, there's a fairly subdued commentary track by director Vidmer, Imperioli, and poker expert Vince Van Patten.
Here's one of those flicks that come out of nowhere. High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story is a well-done biopic, chronicling the rise and fall of an interesting guy I never heard of. It's not a Royal Flush, but it's definitely a winner.
Not guilty. Hold 'em.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary by Director A.W. Vidmer, Actor Michael Imperioli, and Poker Expert Vince Van Patten
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