In his dazzling poker book Positively Fifth Street, which chronicled a grisly piece of Las Vegas history alongside his own unlikely run in the 2000 World Series Of Poker, Jim McManus describes a poker tournament as "four days of intense boredom interrupted by brief moments of sheer terror." Poker movies have the advantage of cutting straight to the terror, but Rounders excepted, nearly all of them are intensely boring. If the stakes are clear and the audience has enough investment in the characters, every turn of the cards can be heart-stopping. But if too many more movies like the abysmal Deal come along, making the final table at a poker tournament is going to seem as exciting to the layman as an afternoon in line at the DMV.
Owing much to the grizzled mentor/naïve student dynamic in The Color Of Money and Hard Eight, Burt Reynolds and Reaper's Bret Harrison star as members of the old guard and new guard, respectively, trying to make a splash in the poker world. Once a big-time rounder who locked horns with the likes of Doyle Brunson, Reynolds gambled away most of his winnings and hasn't played a hand of cards in 20 years, because the game nearly wrecked his marriage. He gets the bug again when watches Harrison, a law student with a lot of raw talent, on a televised poker tournament. Reynolds proposes to buy Harrison into high-stakes games and tournaments if the kid listens to his teachings and gives him half the winnings.
Deal traffics in all sorts of stock situations: Reynolds and Harrison are both held back by henpecking family members who see poker as gambling and not a skill game; Harrison has a go-nowhere relationship with a Vegas looker (Shannon Elizabeth) with predictable baggage; and all the action leads to a Rocky-like face-off at the final table of an extravagantly lucrative tournament. (Odds that the major characters in a poker movie will all make the final table: 100 percent. Expectations that the same thing will happen in real life: close to 0 percent.) Throughout the film, Reynolds appears a warm glass of milk away from slumber, and co-writer/director Gil Cates Jr. paces the action accordingly. To think that a semi-major studio financed a production this low-rent and listless is amazing: Since when did MGM start making student films?