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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

3.20 --- A Game of Pool

Directed by : Randy Bradshaw
Written by : George Clayton Johnson
Starring :
Esai Morales, Maury Chaykin
First aired : 31st of December, 1989.

***

Reviewer's note : this air date looks suspect to me, considering that the previous episode aired in January, and the next one is somewhere in February. TV.com reports the December date - I'd love it if anyone could tell me more on this...Zicree's Companion mentions that there were legal wrangles around this piece due to Johnson not authorizing the reworking of this script, so maybe that pushed the airing date all the way to December. Or it's just a cockup by someone on TV.com.

***

Meet Jesse Cardiff (Esai Morales, La Bamba, Rapa Nui), a young pool player with great ambitions. Eversince he grabbed that cue, Jesse aspired to be the best, but is constantly being compared to the now legendary Fats Brown, a deceased pool legend who was dubbed to be "the greatest ever". As comparisons are obviously disfavourable and patronizing, Jesse is irked that nobody recognizes his skill. While going off on a tanget in an empty pool hall, Jesse exclaims that he would give everything to have just one game with Fats.

Unexpectedly enough, Fats (Maury Chaykin, Dances with Wolves, My Cousin Vinny) suddenly materializes in the room and challenges Jesse to a game, with his life at stake. Jesse is initially reluctant, but after Fats taunts him that he's too scared to put his money where his mouth is, he accepts. The balls are racked, and a tense game ensues, during which both men seem to be in balance.

Eventually, the position is reached from which Jesse needs only one ball pocketed to win the game, where Fats requires several. Distracted by Fats chalking his cue, Jesse botches his winning shot, only to be handed an unexpected second chance when Fats leaves one ball off the table. Caught up in his own gloating, with Fats questioning his modus vivendi, noting that there is life outside of pool, Jesse misses again - and the old champ seals the deal with an easy pocket.

Visibly nervous, Jesse asks Fats to get on with it, to which he just grins and drops a piece of chalk on the pool table. He explains Jesse he wouldn't kill him, but that he indeed will die and be forgotten, like all wannabes do in the end. Jesse is livid to hear this - he claims he was tricked, to which Fats just responds that you don't become a champion by not being able to handle the pressure. Remarking that "every man can be a marksman if the target doesn't shoot back", the champ vanishes from the pool hall, leaving the dismayed contender behind.

***

As many of you might know, this is a remake of a classic '60s episode of the same name, starring Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters as Jesse & Fats, respectively. The thing is, in a two-actor 20-minute piece, you can have a script out of heaven, but you're not hitting home if the performances fail. Where Klugman and Winters made a perfect pairing, Morales and Chaykin are certainly not, and that is the downfall of this updated A Game of Pool.

In the original, Klugman was most certainly a "pool nerd", but he oozed some cocksureness and had that "dicky" aura of a young hotshot - Morales delivers an overbaked performance, and looks more like someone who never played a pool game versus a human being all his life. First time watchers might feel Klugman may or may not win the game, while watching Morales, you're almost certain his nerves will get the better of him at some point. Chaykin makes a decent Fats Brown, though I was somewhat dismayed with his mood swings - he shifts from timid to vivid in a matter of seconds, Winters handled this much better in the original. Also, Winters had some sort of menace floating around him, and looked dead serious throughout. Their acting delivery is different as well - Chaykin comes off like a typical arrogant bastard, where Winters had that "champion's cool", asserting his supremacy with full confidence and calmed precision.

What is an interesting departure from the original is the choice of ending. The '60s episode finished with Jesse winning the game, but then having a "champion's obligation" to defend his crown whenever someone challenges him - even in afterlife. The title of world's best is thus portrayed as a burden as well, rather than just an tremendous honour. This ending is dropped in favour of George Clayton Johnson's original closure, the one that you see in this remake. Which one is better falls down to personal preference, though both have their own charms.

Compliments also go to the director, Randy Bradshaw, previously of The Trance. Bradshaw stages the pool game with great skill, and makes the actual cue-swinging action one of the lone parts where this remake outshines the original.

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