If "Hustle" is not a good movie -- and it surely is not -- it isn't for lack of a great story, compelling characters, and a capable director. Really, the ESPN movie about Pete Rose should be better than it is. Much better.
In the parlance of baseball, "Hustle," which premieres tonight at 9 p.m., is a pop-up. Yes, director Peter
Bogdanovich portrays the player known as "Charlie Hustle" as a cheat, but the movie he's made has all the drama of a public-service announcement. We watch as baseball's all-time hits leader -- one of the greatest to ever play the game -- takes a historic fall, and we say so what. Rose, who grew up in Cincinnati, was a hero for his hometown Reds, winning four pennants and two
World Series as a member of the vaunted "Big Red Machine." Playing with a zeal that could look like mania -- Rose would sprint to first base after a walk -- No. 14 racked up stats that may never be challenged: Aside from his record 4,256 hits, he played in 3,562 games and had 14,053 at-bats in 24 seasons -- both major league records. Rose's relentlessness on the field gives a clue to his life away from it -- he was a committed adulterer and an inveterate gambler. Tenacious as a player, Rose was a real piece of work in street clothes.
So there's plenty of material there, especially for a leathery leading man like Tom Sizemore, but Bogdanovich whiffs. The director, whose best work, "The Last Picture Show," is now three decades old, has made a clumsy Cliffs Notes version of a promising story.
While Sizemore's got the right tough-guy persona for the part -- just Google the names "Sizemore" and "Fleiss" sometime -- and even bears a vague resemblance to the ballplayer, he looks and acts like a clown in this movie. Unlike Rose, whose uniform always seemed two sizes too small, Sizemore's butt can't fill these baggy pants. And what's with the stringy wig?
The film doesn't bother to explore when or why Rose began gambling, or how his habit spun so completely out of control. It doesn't develop the characters of his put-upon wife, Carol, or the cronies who carry the ballplayer's bags and place his bets. (Rose's pal Paul Janszen, played by Dash Mihok, looks downright lobotomized.) Worst of all is the cliched dialogue: "We'll get 'em next time," says Rose after he loses several thousand dollars on a wager. (On second thought, that's not the worst. The use of Kenny Loggins's lame "Danger Zone" to remind us that it's 1987 is unforgivable.)
But ESPN's third biopic -- it previously produced mediocre films about hot-tempered basketball coach Bobby Knight and football legend Paul "Bear" Bryant -- "Hustle" gets its facts mostly straight. Since Rose wouldn't cooperate, Bogdanovich relies on the findings of John Dowd, the Washington lawyer hired by Major League Baseball to investigate Rose's gambling. (Dowd, of course, found that Rose did bet on baseball between 1986-1988, including many games involving the team he was then managing, the Cincinnati Reds.)
The film, which begins with Rose selling the car he claims to have driven to the park the day he broke Cobb's career hits record for $75,000, ends with a snippet from an interview earlier this year in which the disgraced superstar shed crocodile tears while admitting, for the first time, that he bet on baseball. Now that was good TV.