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Because I'm a sports fanatic and few athletes are better suited for a biography movie than Pete Rose, I was initially excited about seeing this movie. But I became skeptical when learning that it was made by ESPN. Although I generally enjoy that station, I was colossally disappointed in the only movie of theirs I'd previously seen, their debut, 2002's "A Season on the Brink." That movie is a painfully shallow and amateur adaptation of John Feinstein's outstanding chronicle of Indiana University's 1985-86 men's basketball team.
But "Hustle" shows that ESPN is already making good progress in movie making. Though not a masterpiece, it's a solid presentation of the downfall of Rose, who set dozens of Major League Baseball records but was banned for life from MLB for betting on his hometown Cincinnati Reds while he was managing that team.
"Hustle" takes place from October, 1986 - the month that Rose's playing career ended - until August 24, 1989, the day of his banishment. He managed the Reds, the team for which he played most of his career, during that entire period. Unlike most sports biography movies, this one has little on the field action and assumes that the viewer is already familiar with Rose's career accomplishments.
Instead, "Hustle" concentrates largely on Rose's gambling, which he has long taken to an obsessive level and says is his only hobby. The movie is based on John Dowd's investigation, which led to Rose's banishment. In the movie, Rose (played by Tom Sizemore) is shown as gambling with the relentless competitive fire that made him a fan favorite on the field. In one of the early scenes, he is simultaneously watching three games, all of which he has presumably bet on, and cheers wildly, as if his team is playing in the games.
But the dark side of Rose's gambling is shown early and often. He routinely bets $10,000 per MLB game, including those involving the Reds, who he always bets to win. In one scene, the scoreboard at the Reds' then home, Riverfront Stadium, is broken and Rose is clearly uncomfortable with not being able to see the scores of the other games on which he has money at stake.
He piles up big losses in his bets, many of which are illegal, and sometimes doesn't pay quickly enough to satisfy those to whom he owes money. This results in the mafia threatening Rose's friend Paul Janszen (Dash Mihok), who places Rose's bets for him.
Janszen gets progressively more uncomfortable with his unsafe position but the police get to him before the mafia does. Janszen is arrested for dealing steroids and tells the media of Rose's gambling on his team's games. MLB's highest officials confront Rose about the allegations, which he strongly denies. But Dowd's investigation shows otherwise.
Though the movie is somewhat modestly produced, it does a good job at showing Rose behind the scenes. Sizemore bears only a slight resemblance to Rose and doesn't sound like him at all but does very well at copying Rose's personality, posture and mannerisms. (This is a welcome contrast to the aforementioned "A Season on the Brink," in which Brian Dennehy is almost completely unconvincing as Bob Knight.) And Melissa DiMarco is good as Rose's wife, Carol, who fears that her husband's gambling threatens their financial security and tries to get him to stop. And from what I understand, the information given in the movie is generally accurate, which is often not the case in sports biography movies.
During his more than 40 years as a celebrity, Rose - crass, arrogant and marginally educated but also a passionate and aggressive overachiever - has provoked lots of mixed emotions. "Hustle" gives us about as comprehensive a look at this very intriguing man as could be expected in a low budget 90 minute made for TV movie. And it gives me much more hope for future ESPN movies than I had before.
And the DVD is jam packed with bonus features on Rose, which, combined with the movie, make the DVD and excellent value. 7/10. (The rating is based only on the movie, not on any of the DVD's other features.)
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