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NO 'HUSTLER,' BUT DON'T JUST CHALK IT OFF
Frank Deford
May 26, 1980
There are some subjects that, despite seeming to be endlessly fascinating, can be totally covered in one movie. Take pool hustling. It's been done. The Hustler (the classic Jackie Gleason, the gorgeous Paul Newman, the lean and hungry George C. Scott) took care of that in 1961, and nothing I have read or seen on the subject since has expanded my knowledge—or interest—one iota. Obviously, there is no more there. (Did For the Love of Benji add anything to Benji?) But pool hustling is a benign form of adult mischievousness—men will be men—and it fascinates innocent outsiders who stumble upon it. If those outsiders are moviemakers, they'll do a film about it, for much the same reasons that tourists come home with drawn-out eyewitness reports of Old Faithful spouting.
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May 26, 1980

No 'hustler,' But Don't Just Chalk It Off

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There are some subjects that, despite seeming to be endlessly fascinating, can be totally covered in one movie. Take pool hustling. It's been done. The Hustler (the classic Jackie Gleason, the gorgeous Paul Newman, the lean and hungry George C. Scott) took care of that in 1961, and nothing I have read or seen on the subject since has expanded my knowledge—or interest—one iota. Obviously, there is no more there. (Did For the Love of Benji add anything to Benji?) But pool hustling is a benign form of adult mischievousness—men will be men—and it fascinates innocent outsiders who stumble upon it. If those outsiders are moviemakers, they'll do a film about it, for much the same reasons that tourists come home with drawn-out eyewitness reports of Old Faithful spouting.

But that's not all. Here's another problem with movies of people playing pool: tedium. In The Baltimore Bullet (which is not about guns, Crabtown or Gus Johnson, but a pool hustler with that moniker), we are briefly introduced to Steve Mizerak, the show-off who shoots pool in the Miller Lite beer commercials. Immediately, I was distracted; all I wanted to see was Mizerak making trick shots. Which poses the question: Why would anyone make a two-hour film about an activity that can be captured in one 30-second commercial? Footage of pool shooting can make you very eye-weary, what with all those colored balls rolling head-on at you, thanks to the magic of pocket-level camera work. In recognition of this truth, the director of Bullet, Robert Ellis Miller, has left the entire pool-shooting showdown off the screen.

This suggests that the movie is more cleverly handled than its material deserves, and in fact this is so. Given a stale subject and an insipid script, Miller has done a yeoman job at hustling the audience. On a scale of one to 10, I give it a six-ball in the side pocket. If the tone of the movie had been fine-tuned a bit, if it had been whimsical and mocking in all its ways (instead of just a few), it could have come off with that marvelously carefree air that James Bond and Bart Maverick impart. Too many of the pool-hall characters in Bullet are comic specimens gratuitously examined under a middle-class microscope.

But more often, the film knows its place. How can you not like a movie that features: a suitcase full of money; a heavy actually called Boss by his henchmen; a rollicking fight scene in a fun house; a country and western theme song; a bomb that explodes and blackens everybody's face, but doesn't hurt a soul; a virginal heroine who parts with her horse named Trudy ("I love that horse"); a country church with salt-of-the-earth extras singing Rock of Ages; and a veritable cornucopia of antique sight gags involving melon-breasted women in low-cut outfits? Dirty pool.

The performers are a lovely bunch of coconuts. The problem is they're all cutesy-poo scoundrels. James Coburn plays the title character, whose square name is Nick Casey (everybody has a wonderful name in this picture), with too much aplomb. The melodrama is that Nick can't win the big ones. But Nick, as Coburn styles him, is such an ebullient and cocky rascal that never for a moment do we accept him for the tapped-out underdog he is supposed to be. Just as bad, Omar Sharif, cast as the antagonist, gives a wonderful imitation (complete with limp) of the Robert Shaw character in The Sting, while neglecting, alas, to be antagonistic. Here you have funny bombs exploding, people calling women "skirts," a hero named Nick Casey, a henchman named Ricco, and you don't have a villainous villain. That dog just won't hunt.

Coburn's sidekick, young Bruce Boxleitner, late of TV's How the West Was Won, is an engaging foil, much resembling a degenerate Bruce Jenner, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. It is Boxleitner to whom Coburn addresses a classic line that will be remembered long after The Baltimore Bullet has been reduced to cable-TV ballistics: "I taught you everything you know, but I didn't teach you everything I know."

Also starring. There is some type-casting. Ronee Blakley, who portrayed the Loretta Lynn character in Nashville, returns here as Carolina Red, a country singer. Willie Mosconi plays "a legend in his own time." SPORTS ILLUSTRATED appears, playing itself. The magazine has a fairly prominent role in the saga, to the point where one mean-spirited pool-hall proprietor refers to this journal as "that goddam magazine." You know what I say to that? I say, you can call me anything but late to dinner.

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