aka Double Down, aka The Touch, aka Winning Streak
There’s a lot of competition, when you look through human history, for the ugliest year. Imagine the dirt and filth that occupied the typical cave-dweller’s abode. Or the pestilence and plague of medieval Europe. The periwigs and tights and gaudy makeup of Louis XIV’s France. Or even today, should you venture into the bowels of some undergraduate nightclub where hormonal post-teenagers flaunt peacock outfits they’ll regret wearing for decades to come. Yet for my money, no single year can compete in sheer ugliness with 1982, the crossroads of the very worst the ’70s and ’80s had to offer.
A quick inventory: synthetic fabric, feathered hair (and lots of it), checkered flannels under orange or brown vests, leotards (the very name of the leggings conjuring up a mistaken decision), oversized sunglasses, mini-muttonchops, broad-shouldered suits for working women, paisley ties for working men, truck driver mesh-back baseball hats, wristbands, headbands, waistbands, white tube socks striped at the top and hiked to the knee, jogging shorts (the miniskirts of an athletic feminism), and most of all â€¦ the last, dying gasps of the shimmery leisure suit. If Jabootu became a fan-waving Italian fashion designer, his reign would have peaked in 1982.
Jabootu didn’t foray into such nonsense, of course. Humanity was quite capable of dealing out fashion atrocities without his help, and he had movies to influence, careers to oversee. One such movie, combining the power of bad filmmaking with the pustules of bad wardrobe, is Stacy’s Knights*.
*Editor Ken: Chris is correct, of course, that Jabootu, Red of Teeth and White of Claw, didn’t concern himself/itself directly with outside concerns such as bad trends in apparel. However, he/it certainly took frequent advantage of the most appalling remnants of whatever was currently fashionable at the time, on matters ranging from clothing and hairstyles to slang and political and cultural concerns, to further his/its own malign mission.
We open, to nobody’s surprise, with the logo of Crown International Pictures. Neon lights and trickling synthesizer music announce that “American Twist presents” this very period study. But we’re not deep enough into the ’80s for the synth to continue for long. Yep, as soon as the title appears in bright red neon, the disco kicks in:
“In every heart, there is a dream
To win a gambler’s fortune
The only difference ‘tween the winners and the losers
And those who can and those who fail
[backup singers]: BLAH BLAH BLAH
You only live once so open up your heart
BLAH BLAH BLAH
You never will know unless you try
BLAH BLAH BLAH
Take a chance
Make it happenâ€¦”
I’ll spare you the rest, especially the line that concludes “blackjack fever in your bones.” Since the soundtrack was recorded on some primitive Edison device, transferred to BetaMax, then unlovingly digitized for this cut-rate bare-bones DVD, the world may never know what motivational phrase the backup singers were chanting. Over this song, which surely cracked the Billboard Top 100 Opening Theme Songs of 1982, we see highly distorted low-angle shots of neon signs. By sheer accident, some of these shots are a tad interesting. However, for the most part the credit montage is nauseating, as if you were adrift on a boat beneath a celestial Freddy Mercury and had the flu.
You know, I think those backup singers are saying “double down.” Gee, I wonder if this movie will be about blackjack. Meanwhile, the screenwriter turns out to be one Michael Blake, who, if you search your memories, you might remember as the author of the smash hit historical novel Dances With Wolves. He also penned the screenplay for that Academy Award-winning movie. (These two movies are his only writing credits; he apparently decided to quit while he was batting .500.)
Huh, and the director is Jim Wilson. He was the co-producer of Dances With Wolves. Eerie. It’s almost like the spirit of Kevin Costner is haunting the movie already. I’m sure there are plenty of Jabootuites who have been dying for Mr. Costner’s debut on the site. Sadly, the fact is the man is the king of mediocrity, only occasionally overcoming his perplexed face to turn in a good performance, and more often indulging in competently-made yet mystifyingly dull epics. As much as Waterworld has become a buzzword for bad movie, the simple fact is it’s not bad enough to be Jabootu-worthy. Here, I guess, we settle for the next best thing to bashing Kevin Costner—bashing a movie made by his two colleagues from his greatest triumph.
Ack! The movie started while I was indulging in a fantasy about slamming Kevin Costner, and I missed the first line! Or did I? A quick rewind reveals that no, the movie starts in mid-scene. Mid-line, actually. “-can win,” we hear as an androgynous person sits in a car. Presumably this is a female—the voice is feminine—and presumably she was thinking to herself, “I know I can win.” Or so I’m guessing, based on all the neon and blackjack references.
We’ll never know for certain, however, because Jim Wilson, coy and sophisticated filmmaker that he is, has dumped us right into the middle of some action (literally), providing a jolt of adrenaline as the audience tries to catch up with what’s happening. Enjoy that jolt, as it’s the last one you’ll feel until the paramedics come to wake you from the coma the rest of the movie will induce.
Our heroine—who has enough feathered hair to reseed the pates of Jesse Ventura, James Carville and the corpse of Telly Savales—has entered a casino, where she looks lost and frightened. A rude ’80s man bumps into her shoulder, but she only flinches. Intercut with her tentative wanderings are a series of close-ups of casino action. The cuts come faster and more furious, as the lady looks more and more frightened. It’s as if she’s entered Dante’s Inferno, or a truly terrible movie, or something.
This goes on for a while, long enough for us to get a really good earful of the sound effects, which are beyond awful. In addition to the sound mix being off—the volume of the background voices and noises instantly alert the listener to the fact that they were dubbed in later—the regular noises of the slot machines have been replaced by Atari video game sounds. Seriously. Both Pac-Man and Frogger make cameo noise appearances, along with some poor dupe who was asked to exclaim “Awright awright awright!” Far from an isolated incident, this misuse of foley will continue throughout the movie, and possibly represents the film’s biggest technical incompetency.
A hush and calm come over the video arcade, I mean, casino, as Little Miss Hair nervously approaches the blackjack table, at which two urban cowboys are playing. She takes a seat, nervously. If you haven’t got it by now, she’s nervous. The dealer asks if she’s going to play, and she gives a nervous nod, because she’s nervous. “How much?” he asks, and she turns to her purse, which elicits a groan from her tablemates. The dealer rolls his eyes as well. You’d think a lady pulling money from her purse would be a matter of routine to these people, not an uncomfortable embarrassment, but hey, that’s Reno for you. (I’m assuming it’s Reno because if it was Vegas, they’d have slick mobsters instead of chunky mountain men at the table.)
‘Comically,’ she only puts a dollar in to ante, whereupon the dealer has to tell her there’s a two-dollar minimum. He deals the cards face down, and the players pick their respective draws up.
This is the first thing that stopped me cold. Now, I was about as tall as a coffee table in 1982, so I don’t know how the world ran at that particular point in history. However, every casino blackjack table I’ve been to deals the players’ cards face-up, and the dealer’s cards bottom-down, top-up.
Furthermore, for security reasons, players are not supposed to touch or cover their cards at any time. This is true even at the limited-stakes, quarter-a-hand tables. Allowing players to handle their cards and not show them to the dealer simply allows too much room for easy cheating. Yet, this is how the movie pretends casino blackjack is played. If I’m wrong, and these customs have only begun in the last 20 years, please e-mail me and chastise me on this point. Otherwise, I’m going to assume that the film’s scriptwriter had never played a hand of casino blackjack in his life, a fact that only becomes more obvious as the movie progresses.
Back to Our Lady of Perpetual Nervousness, who says “hit me.” The dealer has to teach her the signal for a hit, which is scratching the table. (At least the movie gets this much right.) He deals her a card, which she leans over, and he has to tell her “don’t cover your cards, sweetheart.” Yeah, and try not to let any aces fall out of your sleeve and into the hand that the dealer can’t see. The two mountain men fold. Dealer shows, and Nervous Nelly looks at her hand. “What do you got?” the dealer asks, further displaying the stupidity of having the players hold their draw. She hesitates, as if the math involved in blackjack was too frightening for her to comprehend, then she drops the cards and spits out “Too much!”
The dealer takes her money and then inquires, “Another hand?” He has to ask twice while she exchanges nervous glances with her tablemates. She declines, the disco music comes back up, and our intriguing heroine fairly runs out of the casino, leaving her unused chips on the table. These the dealer accepts chivalrously as a tip.
Cut to the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s nothing wrong with using the Golden Gate as an establishing shot for San Francisco, of course. However, the director has chosen to frame the shot so that the only thing visible about the bridge is the roadway and part of the top suspension pull. Most of the frame is a blurry background of the bay and hills, and it takes quite a bit of squinting and contemplation to figure out that what’s on screen is, in fact, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Just when the realization hits the viewer like a limp noodle, we cut to the Zephyr Theater (standing in as the Jean Dennison Drama School) under the voiceover, “One hand? You drove 200 miles to play one hand?” That’s our main character: wimpy and stupid. As if to quell any doubts, we get a good close-up on Stacy’s face—I’m assuming that’s her name given the film’s title—as she affirms that this was, indeed, how she spent her road trip.
Stacy is on the verge of tears as she relates the fact that she didn’t see much scenery, and we cut to her interrogator, who must be Jean Dennison (though, once again, the movie fails to specify this for quite some time). In a triumph of 1982-ness, Jean Dennison proves to be a singularly unattractive person. I might even say ‘ugly’, were it not for my innate sensitivity and the fact that no person on Earth would be ugly enough to out-ugly the clothes and dÃ©cor seen thus far. Jean, Our Heroine’s most loyal friend, proceeds to declare Stacy insane. She then tells Stacy to pull herself together. This is good advice, given that Stacy’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown following a single hand of blackjack in Reno.
“I’m trying,” Stacy replies. “That’s why I’m in this class.” Aside from being a horrendous line delivery, it’s a curious assertion. Again, I was only a sack of potatoes when this movie came out, but hadn’t psychiatry been invented by then? And how would a theatre class help someone overcome their fear of blackjack? Of course, given the manner in which casinos operate in the movie, we could be watching a piece of science fiction, one in which humanoids in an alternate universe struggle with life-and-death issues through the mystical game of blackus-jackomi. In which case, it all makes perfect sense. “But it isn’t easy, I’ve always been shy,” Stacy prattles on, nearly weeping.
“Hey,” says Jean, “nobody’s going to do it for you, but maybe you could use a little coaching.” I only mention this line because it would have launched a perfectly decent chick flick about overcoming shyness through the expression of dramatic playacting. Instead, it launches a buddy picture about learning how to play blackjack. Here, Stacy, I’ll coach you: get as close to 21 as possible without going over. Now get on with your life. And get a haircut.
We cut back to Reno, where Jean and Stacy are driving down the strip, the latter with her mouth hanging open. Whether her hanging jaw is in deference to the beauty and glitz of downtown Reno or an incurable sinus problem, I leave to you, dear readers. Soup and salad buffet for $2.95, says a marquee. Live sports via satellite! My jaw just dropped in wonderment, too.
Stacy is playing blackjack. Given the trepidation she exhibited earlier, one would think this triumph Rocky-like enough to end the movie here and now, but it’s sadly just beginning. In fact, we’re only six minutes in. For some reason, five people (including Jean) are standing around watching her. Wait, make that six. Some nerd in an ill-fitting cowboy hat just walked into frame. The blackjack continues without us ever getting a look at the cards, and without any way of following the action, crowd-gazing will be the most entertainment we’ll have. Maybe that’s the reason for all the watching peoâ€¦ oh my god! It’s Kevin Costner!
“Is this your daughter?” he asks Jean, and with that line, an acting career was born. Oh, sure, Costner had a few walk-on roles before this one, but this was his first starring role, and sure enough, as the credits foretold, his best and most Jabootufied turkey. Prayers, here’s your answer. He and Jean have a moment as she brushes off his inquiry and he continues, “Son?” (Actually, I understand his confusion, though this may have been intended as a ‘joke’.) I wasn’t kidding about the hat, either.
For the next two minutes, we watch people watching blackjack.
At one point, Jean breaks the monotony by encouraging Stacy to double-down, but she refuses, saying she has a gut feeling. We never know how the advice pans out, because, true to form, Jim Wilson refuses to show us the blackjack cards. Our duty is not to watch a movie about blackjack it seems (though that would have been dull enough), but to watch a movie about people who stand around and watch other people play blackjack.
The only other ‘action’ in this sequence occurs when the dealer reminds Jean not to give advice. This is strange, because the possibilities for card-counting sharps and signals are already enormous thanks to all the hangers on. (At this point, there are at least eight watchers, including a pit boss in a powder-blue suit.)
Suddenly, the pressure (or the boredom) gets to Stacy. She freaks out and starts packing away her stacks of chips. I guess she was winningâ€¦or maybe she just bought a lot of chips. We’ll never know since we didn’t get to see the hands she played.
Jean, who’s put her beer on the felt (where is this casino?) tries to encourage more irresponsible gambling. Stacy will have none of this enabler stuff, however, and the pit boss nods in approval at her fortitude (despite this meaning the table has lost its one paying customer). A shot pulls back to reveal thirteen people have gathered around to watch Stacy leave the table, which is apparently even more thrilling than Stacy playing blackjack. In fact, a man in a white suit is so overjoyed at her leave-taking that he applauds!
Stacy cashes in her chips. I think we’re meant to understand she won a lot, but again, she could have just brought a bunch of cash in with her. Kevin Costner joins them at the cash window and immediately berates our tightly-wound Stacy for leaving the table. “You got a good feel,” he says, “and that deck was scorching. You could have gone a lot bigger.”
Finally noticing that Stacy looks like a toad caught in a lobster trap, he asks if she’s okay. Jean affirms that this is how Stacy always looks, and that Stacy is walking away $580 richer. This elicits a scoff from Sir Kevin. “What you got there, ladies, is a handful of birdseed. Birdseed.” Remember this description, because it gets repeated several times, being the writer’s only stab at a metaphor, and those don’t come cheap, you know.
Echoing the genius of either Robert Altman or Ed Wood, we now follow this newly-introduced character of Costner’s as he totes firewood in the Sierras. He enters a cabin kitchen where a young Italian guy is pouring an entire can of parmesan cheese over his plate of spaghetti.
The two mumble back and forth. We learn the Italian’s name is Buster, which is interesting, since we still haven’t heard Stacy’s name and Buster never appears again after this scene. Buster asserts that Will (that being Kevin Costner’s nom du jour) has casino fever. “You’ve been thinking about trying to break the bank. Been [mumble] up in your head for a couple of days now.” To illustrate the veracity of Buster’s wisdom, Kevin looks confused, almost as if his head is about to [mumble] up.
Buster gives his buddy Will permission to go out and do what he’s got to do, saying he’ll still be digging whenever Will comes back. From this, we can make an enormous leap of logic. (We’ll have to, with this script.) Buster and Will are independent gold diggers in the Sierras. Never mind that this is a profession that died out roughly fifty years before vaudeville. They seem to be partners, because no boss would encourage an employee to pursue a bad case of casino fever. Of course, there’s no point in worrying about all this, because this plot detour ends up being meaningless.
“I want to be a lawyer, not a gambler,” Stacy is saying in voice-over as we watch her car drive through the mountains. Or maybe it’s the car talking. We’ve so rarely heard Stacy’s voice that I forgot what she sounds like. “Fine, but that guy was right. People push you around,” says another car, or Jean. “I know,” says Stacy/car. “Then let’s concentrate on pushing back, while we work with that â€¦ power of yours.”
What power? The power of the voodoo. Who do? You do. Do what? You remind me of the â€¦ oh, sorry, I just had to channel David Bowie for a second in order to cancel out the awful effect of the harmonophone music on the soundtrack. It sounds like the score to Fox and the Hound after being run through the dishwasher.
Inexplicably, we’re at another casino, one with a big van parked out front. Inside, an oily guy with a moustache and lots of chest hair is standing next to a dealer, watching someone play blackjack. It’s Stacy! She won a hand. She smiles. Wow, it’s like, all her problems are being solved by gambling! I wonder if alcohol and cocaine would turn her into one of Charlie’s Angels.
Meanwhile, in a “security office” that looks suspiciously like a film editing suite—you know, of the kind that would have been used to make this movie, and thus close-at-hand when the director realized he needed an additional ten minutes of footage to reach feature length—two nobodies watch Stacy on a camera. Employing dialogue and pauses designed to make the scene last as long as possible, they confer and agree that Stacy is a mouse. Gee, with unnecessary exposition that good, this just has to be a scene carefully crafted in the original script. No way it was done later as a padding device. Nuh uh.
Back to people watching Stacy play blackjack! Kevin Costner, I mean Will, wanders by. Why? IITS! Instead of acting hostile to this man who cut down poor Stacy at a vulnerable (yet lucrative) moment in her fragile life, Jean acknowledges Will with a wee smile. They converse about birdseed. Cut to the security monitor with submarine pinging noises under it. Aaaaaand back to people watching Stacy play blackjack!
The oily guy comes back and offers Stacy a free drink. People are gathering behind her again. Will introduces the oily guy as Mr. Shecky Pool, the casino owner who has nothing better to do than watch Stacy play blackjack. In case his name didn’t clue you in, he’s the bad guy. “Is he a nice guy?” Jean asks. “Heart like a barracuda,” says mountain-man Will. Hey, Michael Blake, that’s two metaphors! Slow down, old sport.
The table changes blackjack dealers. In the heart-pounding ‘sport’ of blackjack, this represents a major tactical event. This is confirmed by a cut back to the editing suite, I mean security room, where Romulus and Remus admire Shecky Pool’s use of the “knockout” dealer. Will, who is wise in the ways of blackjack voodoo, advises Jean to “get her out of there â€¦ get her OUT, NOW.” Stacy looks perplexed. Indeed, her very life may be in danger! It’s blackjack, in the eXXXtreme!!!
This is probably too much excitement for the movie’s intended audience of morons and boiled turnips. Therefore we diffuse the situation by cutting to a keno bar, where Will patiently explains the nefarious knockout dealer, who glances at the top card before dealing it in order to slightly elevate the house’s odds. Amusingly, Will describes the knockout dealer as ‘he’ even though the knockout dealer in the previous scene was a woman. Score one for indiscriminately gynophobic pronoun use! (I have a minor in Womyn’s Studies* and I’m not afraid to use it.)
“Isn’t that cheating?” asks Stacy.
“Right, they just wanted to see how much you know,” Will responds, instead of the logical answer, which is ‘yes’.
“Well, shouldn’t we report it?”
Again, instead of saying ‘yes’, Will says, “To who?” That’s ‘to whom’, Shakespeare. I also have a major in English, and I’m definitely not afraid to use that.
“I don’t know, the owner?”
“The owners probably handpicked him
Stacy and Jean are overwhelmed by Will’s Socratic advice, however, and inquire as to what his intentions are. Will says that Stacy has talent, and brings up birdseed again. This is our cue to cut outdoors, where a couple of bums are sleeping next to a bridge that our three musketeers are crossing.
Quick day-night check: car conversation happened at twilight, casino followed (presumably at night), and now it’s broad daylight. Stacy’s been gambling all night long! Go, Stacy! Of course, that’s not nearly as sad as Will and Jean, who have been watching Stacy gamble all night long, but whatever.
Will is still impressing the women with his knowledge of “shoes and shills and daubers and Shecky Pools.” He states that “without a good system, any half-assed dealer is going to dust your clock, and even then, it’s tough.” This represents the only true statement uttered about blackjack in the whole movie.
Now they’re at the banks of a stream. Will is giving them a pitch to become Stacy’s blackjack coach, for which service he’ll take 1/3 of her winnings, saying his guts tell him she can make a lot of money. Instead of pushing him into the river, the women agree to his plan.
Will is happy. In a poorly-staged and even more poorly-acted scene, he stands up and runs away from them, then turns back and says, “Oh, and the reason I talk about guts so much is because that’s exactly what it’s going to take. You should think about that, too.” With this bon mot, he flings a pebble in the stream and runs away. There goes the worst sales pitch ever committed to celluloid. Of course, the girls have to fall for it anyway, because IITS, and Will’s charisma is an informed attribute, and a million other clanky machinations it would take too long to point out.
Cut to a truly weird scene in a motel bathroom, where Jean barges in on a weeping Stacy, who pounds the counter, wailing, “I think and I think and I try and I try and I always come back to the same damn thing. I can’t do this!”
Speaking for the audience, Jean grabs Stacy’s shoulders and says, “You’re all worked up, and nothing’s even happened.” Sadly, she doesn’t shake Stacy as vigorously as the audience would like her to. Then follows a pep talk that could easily be misconstrued as an invitation to Sapphic activity: “Don’t fight it. Go with it. See what happens. It could even be fun. You can get off any time you like.” My inner Beavis is giggling.
The next day, Jean is convincing some guy named Everitt that the drama school named after her can get along just fine without her while she watches Stacy play blackjack for maybe a week, maybe longer, presumably skimming her winnings in the meantime. Hey everybody, remember the telephone game from Die! Die! Die!? Let’s play!
Jean: “Oh, Everitt, I’m not married or in a Satanic cult!”
Everitt: “You’ve been reading Jack Chick again, haven’t you?”
Jean: “I’m just having fun and making money!”
Everitt: “You say that every time you run off to Nevada without warning.”
Jean: “No â€¦ just tell Richard to cover classes before the break.”
Everitt: “What classes? You haven’t had a student since ’68. How long have you been on the smack?”
Jean: “I don’t know, maybe a week, maybe longer.”
Everitt: “Do you want to go back to jail?”
Jean: “I will.”
Everitt: “Just stay at that phone booth. I’ll have the Betty Ford people pick you up.”
Everitt: “And remember not to struggle so much. I still owe $300 for the last straight jacket you broke.”
Jean: “Oh, thanks Everitt.”
Everitt: “Don’t thank me. Just stay where you are.”
Jean: “Good-bye. Mwah.”
Jean hangs up and encourages Stacy to call her job, because if she doesn’t, “you’ll stew in your own juice about being irresponsible or something, and we can’t afford that.” That’s right. People who ditch work to play cards for money can’t afford to think about responsibility. Not with friends like Jean and Will, anyway. Stacy asks, “What do I say? I quit?” But before Michael Blake can provide a logical answer to this puzzling ethical dilemma, we cut to a car on a road.
The car is talking again, and this time it sounds like Kevin Costner. Fittingly, it’s a rusty old station wagon. Kevin/car is very excited about his uncle’s summer cabin. We finally cut to the cabin, where Will is giving the ladies the grand tour, showing off such amenities as a stove, cupboards, and a broken sink. I think this is meant to be playfully sarcastic, but Costner enumerates the appliances with such sincere gusto that he comes across as a chap genuinely impressed by things such as stoves, cupboards, sinks. Always a ladies’ man, Will points out that he got an ironing board for Jean. She’s duly unimpressed, although considering what she’s done so far to earn her skim of Stacy’s winnings, a little ironing might not be too much to ask, at least of her own tattered wardrobe.
As if reading my mind, we cut to an outdoor night time picnic table, where Will and Stacy are sitting in uncomfortable silence. Will asks if Jean always looks so sloppy, and Stacy answers yes. So much for loyalty. And these two probably shouldn’t be casting stones, between the ill-fitting hat and the chocolate naugahyde jacket Stacy’s wearing. At least four naugas must have died to make that thing. Will encourages Stacy to encourage Jean to dress better. Yep, he’s earning that 1/3 already.
Now we’re on the banks of the Truckee River, and our heroes are given over to much forced laughing, almost like cold and untalented actors trying to pretend they’re drunk. They cackle at each other while a coyote howls in the background. Because the Sierras are infested with coyotes, you know. Teeming with ’em.
Yay! We’re back at the casino! And when I say the casino, I’m not kidding. Shecky Pool is standing behind the table again like a pit boss, not a casino owner. Jean and Will are watching Stacy play blackjack (how many more times am I going to have to type that?), while two ‘shills’ sit down at her table to attempt to throw off her counting.
Will laughs merrily at this ruse by bete noire Shecky. He also takes this opportunity to encourage Jean to encourage Stacy to dress better, thus perfecting his gambit to make his two female accomplices more attractive. Ah, the slippery mind of our Will. Jean, naturally, agrees to spruce Stacy up, commenting that she’s “clean â€¦ but dull.” These two must be the best friends of all time. Will finally gives in to the shills and pulls Stacy out of there, though with less alarm than he showed during the infamous knockout dealer battle.
Stacy’s upset, however. As they leave the casino (which I now recognize as the Peppermill, though the logo is carefully masked at all times, marking the first and only time in Peppermill’s history that it has exhibited a modicum of taste), Stacy asserts she could have won $5,000. How does she know this? Shrug.
Will doesn’t contradict her, but states that such a streak would have got the casino owners wondering. “So? They already are,” states Jean, rather logically. Will throws a tantrum at this, screaming that the casino owners aren’t going to let people walk in and take their money day after day, etc. etc. He then orders them to do some errands and meet him at sundown. Instead of blowing this useless drifter off, the girls remain under the thrall of his *cough* charisma, and do as they’re told.
Back at the cabin, Will is hanging a scroll of holy blackjack wisdom when there comes a knock at the door. He goes to answer, but is confronted by a shocking sight: Jean and Stacy in â€¦ different clothes! Not better, or nicer, just different. Still, we’re supposed to believe this is the result of the prettifying advice Will gave them earlier.
The women smile and giggle at his astonishment, as I look for any single detail that could indicate our heroines have increased in attractiveness. They’re wearing colors that don’t bring to mind disease and decay, so I guess that’s something, especially for 1982. Otherwise, Jean still looks like Robin Williams’ older sister, and Stacy could still pass for Tootsie’s stunt double. To give us a hand, a sultry sax lick plays on the soundtrack. Um, yeah. Hubba. Hubba.
Stacy removes her Hubble telescope eyeglasses and says she gets her contacts in a week. (I now anger all my esteemed elders by expressing surprise that contact lenses were commonplace in the early ’80s.*)
*Elderly, Liver-Spotted Editor Ken: “You damn whippersnapper! And stay out of my watermelon patch, unless you want a backside full of rock salt from Ol’ Betsy!!”
The women ask what the scroll is all about. A cutaway reveals it’s a rather pedestrian table of blackjack odds. Will proclaims it’s the ticket to a big score, and that nobody’s going near a casino for a week, while they practice and “have some fun.” I’m already dreading the ‘fun’ montage that’s approaching like a tornado cloud on the horizon.
But first, it’s time to watch Stacy memorize charts and play blackjack! We get another horrible song on the soundtrack about “gambling man.” (This movie doesn’t miss an opportunity to refer to women as men.) The song must have cost a pretty penny, because we get the whole thing over a longish montage. At one point, Will offers Stacy a calculator to help her with the odds calculations, but she pushes it away. Because, you know, she’s a math whiz who’s good at blackjack.
Finally, the song draws to a close and Stacy asks where all the fun is. (Uh oh.) Before you know it, Stacy and Will are riding a horse. Fun! Jean has comical difficulties with her horse. This goes on â€¦ and on, until they engage in the inevitable snowball fight.
This provides another instance of terrible ADR (as dialogue added in post-production is called). The women do an okay job with their squeals of merriment, but Kevin Costner, for some reason, elects to portray Will’s enthusiasm through a series of grunts and growls that sound more like a grizzly who’s been kicked in the testicles than a carefree bloke engaged in a snowball skirmish. Naturally, there’s also some wrestling, and Will and Stacy end up laying on each other, while Jean watches in motherly approval, even uttering a small “aww” in case the audience doesn’t get how cute this sudden attraction is between our mild-mannered con man and meek-mousy card shark.
Don’t worry, though, because it’s right back to blackjack practice. Like nudity in a porn movie, Stacy’s Knights never strays far from its central selling point. This time, we get reaction shots and stacks of chips for three straight minutes (though never any clear looks at the cards to see who’s winning and how).
After the boredom has piled as high as a New Jersey garbage heap, Will suddenly gets on his knees and approaches Jean, pinching her cheeks and giving her a big sloppy kiss. (Ew!) I can understand his confusion, as Stacy was sitting on the right in all the preceding footage, but the women have switched seats during a lapse in continuity. (You notice these things after three minutes of nothing else to look at.)
Will declares that Jean’s 68 percent win rate is wonderful. And he’s right! In blackjack, a win rate of that magnitude would signal an extremely hot streak of luck, as the percentages generally swing between 45 and 55 percent for a good player. “But 82â€¦” Will says, to Stacy. He expresses disbelief, but not so much as I do. An 82 percent win rate in blackjack is freakishly lucky. There’s no other explanation for it. You can have all the percentages memorized and play a flawless game and still not do better than 55 percent, maybe 60 at the highest. Stacy’s ‘talent’ is exaggerated beyond all logic here. Even if you could see the entire deck sequence coming at you, it would be impossible to win 82 percent of the hands without a lucky card sequence. It’s mathematically impossible. So at this point in the movie, the audience has to believe that Stacy is nothing more than a very, very lucky girl.
Stacy wants a kiss. Will leans in, but Stacy pulls away at the last second. This is treated as a fun little tease. Will wants to party. “Let’s put on the dog,” is, I believe, his quaint turn of phrase. “Anywhere you calculators want to go.” So we get our most ’82 moment now, as we head out to the bar, where a DJ in a maroon velvet beret, white-piped black chest shirt, and golden suspenders spins wannabe classic rock to the enjoyment of several disco rejects in polyester clothes.
We get some gratifying shots of Kevin Costner dancing like â€¦ well, like me, to be honest. You know, all elbows and white guy handclaps on the downbeats, mouth hanging open, legs bouncing up and down in spasms while his feet never move an inch. It’s not really dancing. It’s like an enjoyable and controlled seizure. Meanwhile, I’m on the couch, having an entirely unenjoyable grand mal from all the hair on screen.
Jean is having the time of her life with Leisure Suit Larry—seriously, same black-and-white threads—while Will and Stacy simultaneously decide to abruptly cease dancing in the middle of the ‘song’, just as it reaches the obligatory ’80s saxophone solo. Jean wiggles over and tells her compadres to buzz off, which they gladly do, going for a stroll down the fabulous strip of Reno, Nevada. All one block of it.
They engage in some uncomfortable conversation before Stacy says, “Will, I’m not a gambler.” He pep talks her, even using her name (its first mention in the movie!). True to form, his salesmanship is less than adequate, yet somehow does the trick. [See Immortal Dialogue.]
We get a brief few seconds of mountain scenery, which teases us. I wouldn’t mind watching that for the remaining hour, or even a Bob Ross rendition of it, but instead we cut inside to Stacy’s naked back (oooooh!!), and Will barging in on her. Why does Will walk into her bedroom unannounced? IITS. He apologizes, but doesn’t leave, preferring to stay and leer. They slowly come together and kiss, whereupon the PG rating would normally require a cutaway to something suggestive of their romance.
Instead, we cut to a picture of Shecky Pool with a lady on each arm. Not exactly a textbook reference to romance, that. The camera pulls back to reveal Shecky sitting at his desk, writing something while a dude hovers over him. The office is decorated in hunting lodge style, complete with a taxidermied mallard and ocelot(!). There’s a knock on the door, and a lackey pops in to inform Mr. Pool that there’s a girl up $12,000 at the blackjack table.
In the submarine editing suite that’s serving as a security office, Thing #1 and Thing #2 comment on how well the mouse is doing. Yet another five seconds of runtime wasted. Way to go, you two!
Time to watch Stacy play blackjack. She’s got serious bags under her eyes, though I don’t think this is intentional. As a matter of fact, all the casino scenes have a feeling of boredom and lethargy that’s entirely authentic, and represent the movie’s only cinematic accomplishment. However, I doubt the filmmakers shot these scenes with the intent of capturing the dreadful ennui of compulsive gambling, so I’ll chalk it up as silver lining on a very dark cloud. If, in fact, boringness can be considered a movie’s saving grace.
This time, in addition to the video arcade noises, the sound man stuck some voice track in the background that sounds more like a cattle auction than casino chatter. Will is standing in the corner giving very obvious signals to Stacy, and not looking suspicious at all. Here, our intrepid card sharks have crossed the line from playing well to cheating, and should rightfully be thrown out (it being generally against house policy to allow non-players to count cards and signal). However, we’re in that alternate universe, where any second now Captain Kirk will be leading an exploration team through the doors to blow apart this entire creepy simulacrum of planet Earth*.
UbÃ«r Geek Ken: Actually, it should probably be Commander Riker, given the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode set in an alien-created space casino based on a poorly written novel carried by an errant Earth astronaut.
Despite Will giving her a thumbs-down, Stacy bets a big stack of chips. The dealer informs her that the limit is $200, but Stacy insists, and Shecky Pool saunters over to approve the bet. Why is he letting a hot player he suspects of cheating play an above-limit amount? IITS. Once again, the hand plays out without us getting a glimpse of the cards. This time, it’s not even apparent whether she won the hand or not. Shecky invites her up to his office after she’s done playing.
Shecky returns to a corner conference with a tall redheaded guy in a suit. (For lack of a provided name, we’ll call him Red.) He says, “We haven’t caught her at anything yet, but my sniffer says she’s up to something.” Red responds, “Cute little broad,” so anything else that comes out of his mouth can be discarded as ridiculous. “She’s cute with house money,” Shecky replies. Ah, wit.
We go outside, where Stacy walks slowly up to Will and Jean, who are on a bench. In a supreme example of “tell, don’t show”, we find out the results of the conference with Shecky now. Namely, that Red is the big boss, and that he’s invited the trio down to Vegas on his private jet, where they can play at his other casino, the fictitious Silver Lode. (“That’s the best!” Will says, presumably of the casino, because, you know, some places have slightly higher quality blackjack tables than others.)
Cut to a black Lincoln*, and it’s another talking car! This time, it sounds like Shecky and Red. As the car pulls up to a plane on a runway, the car has a conversation with itself about our friend Stacy. We learn that she’s up $24,000, that they plan to “get it back” in Vegas, and that Will is a “local loser.” (Got that right). They both use that manly Bad Guy Voice that’s characteristic of blaxploitation and environmental horror films of the late ’70s. They laugh a lot, too. Man, they’re evil.
*Editor Ken: The one who emancipated the Irish? (Sorry, Chris. All you folks who have offered me guest reviews over the years? See, this is what happens.)
It’s time for a montage of the Vegas strip, complete with an obligatory shot of the Flamingo Hotel lights. I will personally give $5 to anyone who can e-mail me with a movie that takes place in Vegas and does not show the Flamingo Hotel lights. Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee are playing the old MGM, along with a show called ‘Jubilee!’ Wow, the star power is overwhelming. Kevin Costner engages in some more terrible ADR, practically screaming “look at that look at that look at that! Oh! This is too much fun!” Go ahead and disagree with that, I dare ya.
We also get the obligatory shot of the fancy suite, which, in 1982, was apparently nothing more than a large room with grandma’s furniture in it. Our characters are naturally extremely impressed by the opulence. The best part is when they check out the bedroom, which has only one large red velvet bed in it, and Will looks happy, Stacy looks puzzled, and Jean looks frightened. It’s unintentional humor at its best.
Cut to Jean on an escalator, presumably going shopping or to visit Circus Circus. Will and Stacy are on the shag carpet, watching TV. Why are they sitting on the carpet to watch TV when all those overstuffed antique couches are everywhere? Two reasons. First, apparently the nicest suite in the ‘Silver Lode’ couldn’t afford a remote control way back in 1982, so Will needs to be within reaching distance of the TV dial. Two, because it’s time for some more PG romance. Smoochy smoochy. This time Will gets to second base before we cut away.
You know what we haven’t done for a while? We haven’t watched Stacy play blackjack. Right on cue, we go to a table, where a solid dozen people are crowded around to watch our protagonist work her magic. Stacy says she needs to relax, and an offscreen man says “Hey, baby, you can relax with me.” Everyone laughs, because it’s hilarious! Ha ha! Some pit jockeys say something about that I didn’t quite catch, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to rewind this movie. I’m beginning to suspect that it’s palindromic, and would tell the same sordid story in reverse.
Now Stacy’s at a new table, which has other players at it (this is a rarity in bizarre-o world) but no crowd of attendants. Will and Jean watch as one of Stacy’s tablemates wipes something from behind his ear onto a card he’s holding—Reason #42 casinos don’t actually let you hold the cards—and he’s caught and led away.
As he should be, because it’s a stupid method of cheating. The cards would be just as visibly marked to the other players and the dealer as they would be to him, unless he’s using some sort of UV thingie or microchip sunglasses that hadn’t been invented yet â€¦ oh, as if the screenwriter thought it through. In case we don’t get it, Will explains the con to Jean while he signals for Stacy to leave. Why would he cast suspicion on the (we assume) innocent Stacy by signaling for her to leave after a cheater has been caught? IITS.
As she goes to the cashier, a bearded guy in flannel bumps her and ‘casually’ pats her down as he helps her pick up her chips. When Stacy walks away, he informs a security guard that she’s clean. Yep, I can see why Vegas is so much more sophisticated about catching cheaters than Reno.
Cut to Jean playing video poker, at which I breathe a small sigh of relief, because as bad as a blackjack movie is, I can only imagine what hell a video poker movie would be. Jean, ever the bright one, is dealt two jacks, two queens, and a king. She keeps the jacks and discards the rest. Wow, no wonder she’s so good at cards. Stacy, meanwhile, is playing blackjack while people watch. That girl is so unpredictable it hurts!
Next is a scene that screams ‘cameo for the director’s friend.’ Big shot Red is interviewing a guy in a mustard suit who has all the acting ability of a can of olives. Red asks if he believes Stacy is counting. “Yeah, she’s counting a little bit, but she also has a lot of luck working for her, too. It’s uncanny, she just doesn’t lose many hands.”
We learn Stacy is up $21,000. Red is upset at this. Now, call me crazy: I know there’s been a lot of inflation over the last two decades, but is $21,000 really a considerable loss to a casino on the Vegas strip? Don’t they service whales who routinely gamble amounts in the millions? Is this a concern for the owner of multiple casinos? Nonetheless, Red orders the masterstroke of “gluing” the Silver Lode’s knockout dealer to Stacy. Yeah, that’ll teach her.
Down on the floor, an imposing white-haired old lady takes over the dealing at Stacy’s table. Stacy immediately notices the threat, and looks concerned. (I guess part of Will’s training is how to spot a knockout dealer by facial features alone.) Will’s interest is also peaked. Stacy loses a hand—I think, again we never see the cards—and this is enough to convince her to move. Because, you know, losing a single hand at blackjack is a terrible setback. Why, I knew a girl who once lost her first hand at the table then drove all the way back to San Francisco in tears.
Stacy and her gallery of onlookers move one table over, but sure enough, the knockout witch comes, too. Ah, the intriguing game of cat-and-mouse in the world of high- (or, okay, medium-) stakes blackjack. Surely, a James Bond movie touched on this thrilling underground at some point, yes? By the way, our sound professional has now added the sound of typewriters to the background mix, perhaps in an attempt to mimic the noise of coins dropping in a slot tray, albeit a failed one. Couldn’t these guys pick up a collection of casino sound effects for $3?
Stacy loses again, and moves indignantly to another table. Red has come down to the floor to see his nefarious plan in action, and is informed by a pit boss that, while she’s not winning, Stacy isn’t losing either (?). You know, all the off-screen action and exposition missing from this flick would make a pretty decent movie in itself. (Or not â€¦ please, Hollywood, don’t construe that as a call for another blackjack movie.)
Sure enough, the evil knockout dealer follows. Cut to Will, who’s blinking. Or maybe that’s actor-ese for concern. I wasn’t Stanislavski trained, so I’m not sure. Stacy loses again, indignantly. It is shocking, I suppose, for someone used to winning more than 80 percent of her hands to drop three in a row, but really, this is blackjack. Win some, lose some. Didn’t Will teach her betting technique? More to the point, doesn’t anyone involved in this movie know a thing about blackjack?
Stacy plays a fourth hand, and loses! She’s on the ropes, folks. Can she recover from this devastating series of blows? Will she somehow accidentally lose all $21,000 to this evil dealer? Stacy, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, requests to see the cards. The dealer calls over the pit boss, and Will approaches as well.
The pit boss refuses to accommodate Stacy’s assertion that the deck is ‘short’, saying that he doesn’t show cards to anyone but members of the gaming commission. (So they do exist in this world.) Stacy starts to raise a scene, pointing at the dealer and using the word ‘cheating’. (Strangely, there are no onlookers at the moment but Will and Jean. Geez, lose a few hands and your fans desert you.) One would think this would be like yelling ‘rat’ in a French restaurant, but Red the bigwig comes over and says, “Listen, missy, we’re on to you. Word on you people has gone out. I’ll give you a simple choice. You can play here by house rules, or you can leave, which just might be your best bet.”
Now, this is rather a rude and stupid way to run a casino, but the easy solution (you’d think) would be to cash in the chips and go to one of the other 50,000 casinos in Las Vegas. Instead, Stacy grabs for the deck, the pit boss smacks her hand away, and Will comes to the rescue, threatening, “You lay one more hand on her and your face is bent.” The pit boss reaches across the table and taps Stacy on the shoulder.
Unbelievable displays of immaturity aside, if you guessed that the next scene would feature Kevin Costner with a broken nose, you get a cookie. Oldest trick in the book. However, since this movie never misses an opportunity to mess up a trick, the ‘reveal’ is done in longshot, confusingly set back in the snow-capped mountains of Tahoe, with Will covering the nose bandage for most of the shot. In other words, it’s the Golden Gate bridge all over again â€“ a poor execution of a simple shot.
Jump right back to Red, who’s putting out ‘the call’ to have all three of our heroes placed in the ‘black book’. Now, this seems rather extreme for one player who has, so far, taken less than $50,000 playing blackjack in an entirely legal manner, but, you know, IITS.
Back on the Truckee, Will is surly. Stacy comes strolling in with a happiness and a confidence that haven’t been seen the entire movie. Will asks where she’s been. She says spending money. This makes him even more surly, but Stacy evades his interrogation by asking Jean how her attempt to repair the sink is going. Will presses the issue, to find out what she’s been spending her winnings on. It turns out it’s â€¦ dun dun duhhhh â€¦ law books! Will decides it’s time to take his ball and go home.
He storms into the other room and begins packing. Stacy follows him and asks why. “Because there’s nothing for me to do here,” he replies. You know, except suck off 1/3 of her winnings. You’d think she’d be happy to see him go, especially after he says, “You two have quit on me. You’ve gone belly-up.” It’s time for another one of Will’s unforgettable motivational speeches. “You want to go to law school? Go. You want to tinker with the sink? Tinker. You want to make another move? Then make it! But twist your own arms â€¦ I’m going out to the mine.”
Leaving them with this dilemma—education, career, and running water vs. gambling in a hostile town—he takes his leave. Masterstroke. He could run for president. Jean and Stacy have a heart-to-heart about this over a couple of beers. Jean, ever the faithful enabler, tries to steer Stacy away from a fruitful law career and back to the casino, where she can split any proceeds with a washed-up thespian and a literal gold digger.
Cut to the mine, where Stacy breaks the bad news to Will that she’s decided to be reasonable. She asks him to visit. Will, understandably, is distressed, and this leads to his least convincing speech and the movie’s strongest swear words. [See Immortal Dialogue.] The music gives a little inspirational swell, to help out the lameness of the speech, in which he even pulls out a card pun (surprisingly, given the location, it has nothing to do with spades). Stacy gives a little smile, and that’s all we need to understand that this movie makes no sense whatsoever, and that these characters will make illogical choices in any given situation. Wheee! The last third of this should be a blast.
Will makes a phone call to a mysterious figure who references Will’s father. This, apparently, is an attempt at some backstory to motivate Will. Since Will was the only character who needed no additional motivation (he was getting paid thousands of dollars to make bad speeches to a gullible blackjack prodigy), this is a bit odd, but then, that’s our movie. They say lots of vague things about ‘the point’ and how dear old dad passed ‘the point’ and it cost him ‘everything’ and none of this matters, eventually, as dad winds up being as integral to the movie as Buster was. Remember Buster? Gosh, he liked parmesan cheese. Ah, memories.
We can’t play the phone game this time, because we hear the other voice, and it belongs to a wrinkly old guy, who hangs up the phone with great weight and drama as the music plays a ditty reminiscent of The Exorcist. Given the previous audio decisions, I’m surprised it wasn’t “La Cucaracha” sung by barking dogs.
Will is driving our ladies and expositing about the old man, claiming the guy knows things that nobody in the world knows, and that he’s banned from all the casinos for life. (Not hard in this universe, as anyone who actually hit a jackpot on a slot machine would be tossed out, according to the behavior we’ve seen.)
They arrive at the guy’s house, which is decorated with a Ouija board on the wall, and he begrudgingly gives Stacy ten minutes. She follows him nervously into a rumpus room, where he pulls out some chips and a deck and asks if she’s up for a few hands. She is. You know what that means. Time to watch Stacy play blackjack! This time, for variety, the camera spends more time gazing at Will fondling poker chips than anything else, but it still doesn’t break the monotony.
After 40 minutes (of movie time, not real time, thankfully), the old man announces that they should come back in about 24 hours. Will and Jean take their leave, but Stacy stays behind. I feared some sudden wakka-chikka music, but fortunately the old man’s virtue holds true, and he just wants to spend all night teaching Stacy his secrets. He unrolls another odds chart, identical to Will’s. Oh boy. Maybe if we’re lucky she’ll also chop some wood and drink a raw egg or two.
Old Man’s good advice is to forget all the charts and statistics and feel the life inside the card deck, to see everything move. I was already rolling my eyes at the idea of natural blackjack talent overcoming the mathematical facts of the game, but here it got even worse. You see, as we slog through this training montage, we gradually realize that Stacy is meant to have ESP, and that she wins by being able to sense or see the cards even face down! At first she’s tentative, but by the end she can rattle off the next card in the deck before it’s turned over with 100% accuracy.
Where do I start with this? Let’s not even tackle the silliness of ESP, and just accept that Stacy can tell what all the cards are without having to see them. As I stated earlier, even knowing what all the cards are in advance won’t increase your blackjack odds to the point of 80-plus winners in 100 hands. There is some skill and strategy in blackjack, but like any card game there’s a hefty element of luck, especially in a game in which the rules are as simple as “get to 21 without going over.” Unless Stacy can manipulate the order of the deck with her mind, this power is of limited use to her.
Of course, knowing the cards in advance would be useful in determining when to bet high or low, but the movie never brings this up. Indeed, it seems to be the assertion that she wins more hands by knowing what’s coming, and that the knockout dealers are similarly buffered by this foreknowledge. This simply isn’t how blackjack works. Not to mention the fact that if Stacy can basically see through cards, she should be playing poker, a game where this skill would be infinitely more handy, and where there’s much more money to be made.
It’s like they made a movie about a basketball team without knowing the rules of basketball, and furthermore by asserting a specific player is better than the rest because he can run really fast. Yes, running fast would help, but there’s also the small matter of shooting, blocking, rebounding, jumpingâ€¦. Oh, and whenever there was a pivotal basketball game, the director would show the crowd instead of the action. And the crowd wouldn’t give any indication as to who was winning. And the referees would try to slow down the fast guy by tripping him. And Kevin Costner would be the love interest. That’s how ridiculous this movie is.
Stacy ends her day of training with perfect card-guessing aptitude, and she has a lovely conversation with old guy [Immortal Dialogue] before heading back into the big bad city with seemingly only one casino.
Speaking of the one casino, cut to Shecky among his dead animals. A lackey comes in and informs Shecky she’s up $18,000. Um, wasn’t she in the ‘black book,’ and wouldn’t it take a little time for her to accumulate that much winnings? Enough time for them to just â€¦ never mind, I’m just going to go with it. Too tired to fight. Shecky, always the creative one, calls for his knockout dealer to be dragged out of bed and into the casino.
Stacy, meanwhile, is playing blackjack while people watch. A pit boss lets us know she’s up $30,000. He runs up to Shecky’s office and suggests the obvious, that they simply ask her to leave the casino and play somewhere else. Not a good way to run a business, but the simplest and most honest way to get rid of her if she’s bugging them so badly. Not to mention more legal than throwing a cheating dealer at her. But Shecky stands firm on his principles that he doesn’t boot customers, preferring to deal with them by more underhanded methods.
A new dealer introduces himself at Stacy’s table, and Our Heroine in turn introduces herself as ‘trouble’, at which everyone laughs and laughs. She’s so funny, our suddenly outgoing Stacy. And more blackjack. Will is earning his keep by sitting in the corner and drinking a beer. We go into the submarine for a bit, because, well, there’s nowhere else to go, then finally Shecky comes down and decides to toss Stacy.
Accusations of cheating are bandied about. It gets heated. Will calls Shecky “poop at the bottom of the sewer.” Yep, those exact words. Incredibly, the same crowd that laughed at Stacy’s ‘trouble’ line doesn’t see the humor in this immature playground taunt. Me, if I heard Kevin Costner call someone “poop at the bottom of the sewer,” I’d be on the ground rolling in no time flat.
For no reason, Will turns around and punches a bouncer. Shecky tells them to get out. Will yells that you can’t ban people for winning. However, I think you can ban people for randomly socking your employees, so the plea is a bit hollow. Will promises they’ll be back, once again proving that Reno only has one casino, or that the characters have the imaginations of goldfish. During the fracas, nobody had time to cash Stacy’s chips, so I figure they lost at least five figures on that little scene. Way to go, musketeers. You’re a well-oiled money machine, you are.
Our trio is making a picnic by the river, to the accompaniment of horrifying jug-band music. Will’s got hisself a fishin’ stick, and he’s a gonna go up to hook one by the ol’ covered bridge, ahyuck ahyuck. He shares a moment with Stacy, then Jean asks, “What’s the latest from brain central?” Costner looks around, as if to see who she’s talking to, then belatedly realizes it’s his character that supposedly has a brain. The latest brilliant plot? “Disguises.” Oh, yeah, Sherlock. That’s genius. Much better than trying a different place or even quitting while you’re ahead. Go fish.
And that’s exactly what he does. Some black trucks pull up, though, to the faux Exorcist music from earlier. Two beefy guys who were fresh off a stint as baddies on The A-Team get out and slam the doors. Will, who can’t see the car or the guys, apparently recognizes an evil door slam when he hears one, because he immediately starts reeling in his line and gets up to â€¦ walk away at a normal pace. And the bad guys â€¦ follow him at a normal pace. You know, because it’s important to look casual when you’re being chased in the middle of nowhere.
Will, always a tactical savant, walks onto a bridge. This allows for another truck to pull up on the other side of the bridge and two more heavies to emerge. This doesn’t concern Will, however. He continues to walk normally toward the new menace, looking over his shoulder every half-second to see if the original baddies are still following him.
Sometimes, just looking over his shoulder isn’t enough. Then he stops completely to turn around and look at them, almost as if he, I don’t know, needs them to catch up because he’s running out of bridge in a poorly-blocked scene. I especially like how the really tall guy keeps his hands in his pockets as he walks. Now that’s menacing. Eventually realizing he’s trapped, Will threatens the heavy nearest him with his fishing pole, and we cut away, because anything that happened next would be much too exciting for this movie.
To let us catch our breath from the exhilarating walk chase, we see Jean and Stacy playing horseshoes. You know, there’s probably a great movie to be made about a girl who’s really good a horseshoes. Hmmmâ€¦. Stacy, while picking up an errant toss, notices a body floating down the river. Now, there’s only one thing more exciting than Kevin Costner showing up in a bad movie, and that’s Kevin Costner taking his leave of a bad movie. Which is exactly what he does here. In a body bag. You may now stand up and cheer.
But wait, it’s even better. First Stacy plucks his ill-fitting hat out of the water, as a souvenir, then she drags his bloodied body onto the small sand bar. The sight of this tiny woman literally dragging Kevin Costner through the mud is almost too pleasurable to bear at this point in the exercise. Naturally, there’s much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the overacting tamps my enthusiasm back down to normal levels. Dead Kevin or no, this is still an awful movie, and I still have twenty minutes of it to go*.
*Editor Ken: What Chris doesn’t know is that Stacy’s Knights was originally intended to be a prequel to The Big Chill, with this incident providing the corpse Costner played for that film. The connection between the two movies was scrapped when Costner’s entertaining turn as a dead body was almost entirely excised during the latter picture’s final edit.
With Will safely packed off into an ambulance, our girls head back to San Francisco, where they hold audience with the most silly movie lawyer ever. Not only does he smoke a Scottish pipe like Jon Lovitz as the Master Thespian, he dispenses nonsensical advice that, I think, is supposed to be eeeeevil. He advises that they can’t prosecute for murder due to lack of evidence, since the death was ruled accidental drowning. Given the amount of ketchup on Kevin’s shirt, the fact that he was probably beaten up or at least thrown from the bridge, and the death threat made by Shecky Pool a few hours prior to the appearance of the corpse, I don’t think this is as black-and-white as the screenwriter, I mean lawyer, believes. But it gets weirder. Stacy asks about the casinos.
“Oh, we could take them to court for throwing you out, but it could take years, years, to get a ruling on eviction.” A-wha? First off, what lawyer is dismayed at the prospect of years of billable hours? Second, ‘eviction’? They weren’t renting a seat at the table. I’m sure the casino had posted signs advising patrons that they had the right to refuse service to anyone. And third, Will hit an employee before the trio was escorted, giving the casino good cause to eject them. This isn’t even a lack of research on display by Michael Blake. It’s a lack of common sense*.
*Editor Ken: Uhhâ€¦is this guy a private sector attorney, or with the DA’s office? I’m assuming the former, given that seeking a ruling on an eviction sounds like a tort case, if an improbably stupid one. (On the other hand, look at some of the real lawsuits we hear aboutâ€¦) However, private attorney’s don’t ‘prosecute’ at all, and certainly not for murder. They could launch a civil suit for wrongful death, I guess, but that seems pretty damn unlikely to succeed, unless Shecky or his underlings have already been convicted in criminal court. Yes, OJ lost such a suit, but that was due to the immense amount of forensic evidence that was somehow ignored by the jury in his criminal prosecution.
All of this, of course, is to give Stacy a reason to turn desperado. The very next scene, Stacy informs Jean that she’s putting together “a team of counters” and going back up. So instead of the sports movie Big Tournament payoff, we’re getting the crime movie Big Revenge Heist payoff. Of course, this is neither a sports movie nor a crime movie, but any ending will do, especially if it’s a quick one.
Stacy, by the way, is now wearing Will’s ill-fitting hat. As if by magic, it fits her just as poorly. That’s some hat.
We’re now entering the realm of another obligatory montage: the interview montage. It’s a great opportunity for the director to give friends and relatives a few seconds of screen time, and we jump right to an abysmal reading of the line, “Hey, I can do it.” Poor kid. Sounds like he spent months rehearsing that line, and it still came out like a piece of regurgitated pork. New characters mean, naturally, new outfits, and we get an eyeful of the worst that early ’80s suitmakers had to offer. We’re also treated to a rehash of the opening theme song. Groovy.
We get a brief break from the montage to introduce the gay makeup artist who will help implement Will’s final master plan: “Disguises.” Jean knows him because she taught theatre. I was wondering when that character trait was going to come in handy. It certainly hasn’t informed her acting one bit. In fact, she shows this off when Stacy cryptically tells her “you’ll need to keep him busy for two hours,” and Jean replies, with extreme ham and bacon on the side, “if I can’t keep him busy for at least two hours, I do not belong on the stage.” Well, um, you don’t.
We finish up with a slideshow of all the interviewees. In case you’re curious (actually, in case you’re still even here reading this), the winners are the Texan, the black guy, the nebbish, the nerd, and the dude with the mustache. These, seventy-five minutes in, are Stacy’s dashing knights. Amazingly, they pass up the opportunity to say the title, and we’re left to figure this out for ourselves. Small miracles.
Back to the one casino in Reno. (Hey that rhymes! Ah, good times.) Shecky informs the camera that he’ll be taking a five-minute break—Godspeed, Shecky Pool—and the submarine security guards zoom in on a little guy in a gray hat with a mustache, whom they declare to be a “weird duck.” Mice, ducks â€¦ they’re regular Aesops in the editing suite, er, security office.
Of course, our weird duck is none other than Stacy in drag. To emphasize this, we get a scene where she’s being hit on at the bar. It’s funny, because she can’t speak, or her cover will be blown, so the woman who’s hitting on her can’t figure out why her â€¦ ah, you know.
In walks the Texan, who gets his own boogie sting. Cut back to the security guards, who are singing “Home on the Range,” and one artfully points out “this guy has got to be from Texas.” See, that’s what I like about these two. Superfluous and redundant.
The Texan keeps looking at Man-Stacy for some obvious signals as to what to do. Amazingly, this clear cheating ring is never exposed, which is the price the casino pays for letting all those gawkers stand around the table all the time, I suppose. Or it’s just bad scriptwriting. Who’s to say? Shecky’s heckles are up over the Texan getting a single blackjack, so he calls in, who else, the knockout. He runs a tight ship, that Shecky.
In walks Mae West. Actually, it’s Jean all dressed up with no place to go. She’s wearing a low-cut black dress with a giant red flower in the dÃ©colletage, and a white faux-fur vest thing. She has a bride-of-Frankenstein streak in her hair and enough makeup to make her face stand an additional inch away from her skull. Picture your mother trying to dress for the high school prom, and that’ll be close enough. If you don’t see where this is going, close your eyes and wait for the movie to end. In fact, that’s not bad advice in general.
Meanwhile, the same guy who used video game noises for slot machines now inserts a wolf whistle to accompany Jean’s entrance. Is it Opposite Day or something?
Back to watching blackjack. The Texan loses a hand on purpose, which is enough for Shecky to announce to his pit boss, “We’re under control.” Yep, that repaired the damage alright. You know, if I ever go to this one casino in Reno, I’m going to cheat my butt off at the poker table. Nobody will ever notice, with the amount of attention they place on every hand of blackjack.
Jean affects a pseudo-British accent at her empty table, declaring herself utterly bored and asking for the manager. The dealer, who may or may not realize he’s in a movie, looks baffled at this turn of events and points to the corner of the room. We cut to Shecky, who’s ordering in another knockout dealer for an unrelated problem! Gee, Mr. Pool, why don’t you just make all your dealers knockouts? That will really make business boom.
Jean saunters up and puts the moves on Shecky, bobbing and weaving constantly like a bad actress portraying a streetwalker, and lays on the breathy voice â€¦ you know what? I can’t go on describing this. Not with what’s coming. Must â€¦ save â€¦ strength.
The Texan has a 20, which wins a hand, and the dealer widens her eyes in surprise. Which is strange, since she deals blackjack for a living and is probably used to people having two face cards, but, you know. In walks the Nebbish. Boogie sting.
Jean is back in Shecky’s private rumpus room, cooing, “Oooh, Shecky.” Excuse me while I wash my brain out with soap.
The submarine notices the Nebbish, and declares him “a betting fool.” What, no animal reference? Surely he’s a turtle, or a fox, or something. Come on, guys, I expected more from you.
Stacy is now signaling two players, which you’d think would only make their scheme even more obvious, but Shecky’s distracted, so â€¦ Black Guy walks in. Boogie sting.
Jean. Shecky. Blackjack. Banter. Shecky: “I think I can rise to the occasion.” Aargh!!
Stacy’s walking around signaling at three tables now. Black Guy wins a hand and naturally makes a great big deal about it, so as to draw as much attention toward himself as possible. Yep, these guys are pros.
Now the security guys are getting nervous, with three whole people winning money in a supposedly large casino. After all, this is a place known for putting a knockout on anyone who wins a single hand. They wonder where Shecky is, while our knights cash in their chips.
A lackey mercifully interrupts the Jean/Shecky lovefest. He tells his boss that there’s a lot of money walking out, and that their knockout can’t keep up with all the winners. Shecky expresses stress, then goes back to the fetching *cough* Jean and says the immortal words, “Now, where were we?” Over here, Mr. Pool, using the complimentary air sickness bag.
Now Stacy is buying in while the Nerd walks in. Naturally, a huge crowd gathers to watch Man-Stacy play. Her makeup job, by the way, is atrocious, like someone spilled a bottle of tanning solution on her cheekbones. Nerd Guy’s only job, it seems, is to cash in Stacy’s chips as she plays and inform the rest of the team back in the van how they’re doing. I’m not sure why you’d have to be a card counter to pull this off. Must have been some pearl of wisdom from Will, or the ESP guy.
Another lackey interrupts the amorous foreplay of the troglodytes (coming to Discovery Channel this spring). Pool loses his cool and tells the lackey to run the joint for a half hour. Perhaps recognizing his own limitations, the lackey immediately calls Red, who leaves his busy Vegas casino to immediately fly up and take care of the Case of the Winning Blackjack Players.
Time to watch Stacy play. She’s taken over a whole table, and is winning every hand against the knockout dealer. Apparently, her powers are growing even stronger, and she can now win every single blackjack hand that’s dealt. Amazing. (*Yawn*)
The submarine people helpfully exposit that Man-Stacy is betting $3,000 per ‘pot’*, which is amusing because blackjack doesn’t have anything called a pot, but whatever. Maybe they’re talking about something else. They want to know where Shecky is. You’d think they’d know, being in the security booth and all, but there you go. Plus, how is Shecky going to stop someone who wins every single hand of blackjack? Magic Missile?
*Editor Ken: Uhm, didn’t they establish previously in the movie that this same casino limits blackjack bets to $200? Even if the ‘pot’ refers to multiple bets, that would require Stacy to make fourteen or fifteen bets per round (or whatever), which sounds pretty time consuming even assuming the rules allow for such a thing.
Cut to Shecky aggressively kissing Jean’s chin. To cool him off, she asks for ‘things’ which Shecky takes to mean condoms and now we’re just in a whole new level of gross.
More blackjack action. Yes, more! One submarine security guy claims he recognizes Man-Stacy. We cut to Shecky in a pair of tight red underpants. Oh no, faithful readers, I’m not running away from this one. This is the cherry on top of the bad movie sundae. Two cherries, in fact. Yep, grape smugglers. A bunch of baby bananas in a hanky hammock. Squeezed. Tight. And he’s admiring himself in the mirror. Is it burned into your memory yet? Stare at the screencap until it is. You will all suffer as I have suffered. I’m taking everyone down with me! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!!
Sorry about that. Had a beer and feeling much better now. Where were we? Ah, yes, the red underpants. Speaking of Red, he’s shown up on the double to take care of all this winning. Finding Jean in the hallway, he grabs her and demands to know where Shecky is. Jean gives him the info, and he barges in while Shecky is naturally in a compromising position. If it wasn’t so icky, it would be funny. Except that it’s icky. Really, really icky.
Red issues orders for the entire casino to be cleared out and shut down. Which makes sense if you think about it: stop one person from making a few thousand by chasing out thousands of people pouring hundreds of dollars into the black maw of your slots. If this is how things are run in Reno, it’s no wonder that cardsharp Will thought Red’s casino in Vegas was “the best.”
By the way, a good twenty-five people are jostling to get a good look at Man-Stacy’s table now. Yep, can’t beat blackjack for a thrilling spectator sport. The lackey tries to close down the table, but the spectators form a chanting mob, shouting “let him play!” You see, it’s us against The Man, man, and you gotta take what you can from The Man, man, so it’s all righteous. Use that groovy ESP you crazy crossdressing chick. We got your back, baby.
The security guy finally realizes that “it’s the mouse, it’s the goddamn mouse,” as if the casino needed a fresh reason to throw her out, but, oh yeah, I forgot that these scenes were added in later.
Nerd Boy collects Man-Stacy’s chips while she concentrates on the eight hands she has going. She’s broken into a sweat, and even jerks a bit as she makes the ‘hit’ and ‘stay’ motions, as if all this ESP is taking its toll on poor Stacy’s constitution. What heroic energy and resolve she’s displaying in this patently outrageous scenario.
Red and a few guards have a conference, then the four begin walking toward the table. Jean, noticing the increased manpower of a fearsome foursome, creates a distraction by shouting that “he’s got a gun!” In the confusion, Our Heroine and her Merry Knights escape from the casino with their loot. Stacy takes a while to make her appearance, in a lame stab at a dramatic “will they or won’t they get away with taking all the money they legally won” finish. The only thing left is to reveal the final take: $611,000. At least the movie had the decency to put up a halfway-big figure there at the end. Stacy’s appraisal of the amount? “Birdseed.”
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the plot of Stacy’s Knights has much in common with Rain Man, a movie that would come out a few years later to much acclaim. The differences between the two movies are actually a good example of what makes one so good and the other so bad.
Dustin Hoffman’s character had a plausible and scientific reason for being good at blackjack: his autism made him a superb counter, able to calculate the odds of the six- and even eight-deck stacks that big casinos use to foil card sharps. Stacy’s character had ESP, which is almost useless in the real world, and not even much help in the fictional world of single decks, held cards, and “knockout” dealers.
In Rain Man, the gambling angle was a subplot to the larger issue of Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise forging a relationship. A larger story with real emotional appeal and heart drove the movie forward. In Stacy’s Knights, there are no believable emotional connections, and the main focus of the movie is blackjack, blackjack and more blackjack.
Basically, good fiction has the ability to suspend your disbelief. If you think of an audience’s disbelief as a giant boulder, and the artist as Sisyphus, trying to push that boulder up a steep slope, a good piece of art like Rain Man will succeed in getting the boulder all the way up the mountain, so that the fiction is transcended by a sort of higher truth that makes it satisfying. For Stacy’s Knights, Michael Blake set the boulder at the top of the hill and gave it a big push. The movie was basically an exercise in feeling our disbelief tumble down a steep slope, landing in a swamp of apathy and disgust. And that’s your overblown metaphor for the day.
Andra Millian (Stacy) is probably only known for her role as Angel Wasserman on the TV show thirtysomething. Her movie career ended abruptly in 1992, when she assayed the role of “Matron” in Love Potion No. 9.
Eve Lilith (Jean) never graced the silver screen again, though she was featured as Mexican Woman in the forgotten TV movie Bloodhounds in 1996.
Mike Reynolds (Shecky Pool) has gone on to have a long and very fruitful career as a voice artist for dubbed Japanese animation.
Garth Howard (the red-headed boss credited as “Mr. C”) made his final screen appearance here, his only other credit being in 1979’s Malibu High as Lance. In other words, this movie had some powerful career-killing mojo associated with it. Unless you count Kevin Costner.
The director, Jim Wilson, didn’t direct any more movies, but served as producer on all the major movies Kevin Costner directed, including Dances With Wolves, The Postman and Wyatt Earp, as well as a few Costner projects directed by others, such as The Bodyguard and Message in a Bottle.
Together with the contributions of Michael Blake, one could say this movie provided the nucleus that launched Kevin Costner’s mediocrity. While Costner’s fame came from unrelated projects such as Bull Durham and The Untouchables, it was what he did with that fame that made such a mediocre impact on the screen. And what he did was gather the team from this piece of trash and perpetuate the mess. While Costner is by no means a terrible actor—even here, he displays a certain ease of being on camera that elevates him above the truly wooden and hopeless—he is guilty of wasting a great many people’s time and money, and it’s strangely gratifying to know it all began with a bona fide ugly stinker.
The Wisdom of Will:
Will: “Nobody wants to gamble with anything. And when they do, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. But you â€¦ forget it.”
Will: “Well maybe you’re already a gambler. Just for the right reasons.”
Upon learning that Stacy feels $45,000 is enough to win at blackjack, Will is compelled to remind the audience that we still have forty minutes of movie left.
Will: “That’s bullshit! You go ahead and wrap up your money and go on back. But don’t fool yourself with this ‘we feel good’ crap. I’m not sure why you came to Reno. But I know it was for more than scoring bucks. I don’t think you got what you came for. Not yet anyway. We’re just not finished here. And you know it. There’s one more card we can play. I can make a phone call and see. Come on, goddammit! What do you say?”
Will’s wily ways, about the Old Man:
Will: “He still knows.”
Stacy: “How’s he going to give up secrets like that?”
Will: “Everybody tells secrets. Believe me, it’s a big deal just meeting him.”
Jean: “How old is he?
More *ahem* inspiration for Stacy to continue her gambling ways:
Old Man: Look at that desert out there. It has many secrets. Some are buried in shallow graves. Be wise. Be careful.