If you transport “The Color of Money” from the pool hall to the golf course, you get something like “The Squeeze,” though to be honest there’s a considerable drop-off in quality from Martin Scorsese’s film to Terry Jastrow’s. Nevertheless golf lovers will get a charge out of the picture despite its flaws, and after the recent recent-breaking win by newcomer Jordan Spieth at the Master’s, it could even attract viewers who don’t spend a lot of time on the links.
Jeremy Sumpter, an engaging young actor who on the evidence provided here is a better-than-average player (there doesn’t appear to be much fakery in the action), is Augie Baccas, a spectacular golfer in his small southern town who enjoys not only winning local tournaments with ease but playing fast-paced “cross-country” games with his girlfriend Natalie (Jillian Murray) and pals. Intrigued about the lad’s potential is Riverboat (Christopher McDonald), a flamboyant gambler driving to Las Vegas with his even more extravagant wife Jessie (Katherine LaNasa). They approach the kid—whose mother and younger sister are under the thumb of his abusive father—with a tempting offer: to hustle players along the way to Nevada, where they can score big against a local kingpin named Jimmy Diamonds (Michael Nouri). Though Natalie warns him against the scheme, Augie sets aside his dreams of scoring in the pros and accepts Riverboat’s offer.
After a series of sequences showing Augie’s frequently wacky victories along the way, the trio arrive in Las Vegas and in a poker game Riverboat cons Jimmy into a golf match that will pit the supposed pizza delivery boy—Augie, of course—against Diamonds’ player, nationally-ranked Aaron Bolt (Jason Dohring). The problem is that Jimmy isn’t the pushover he appears, and Augie’s naivete lands him in big trouble. Caught between a rock and a hard place—Riverboat and Diamonds—he’ll need more than a little help from his back-home friends to survive the contest unscathed.
Written as well as directed by Jastrow, himself a golfer who was in charge of broadcasts of numerous championships over two decades at ABC Sports, “The Squeeze” claims to be based on the real-life experiences of one Keith Flatt, who’s been involved in running several golf-related businesses in Las Vegas for many years. How closely the script hews to the facts is open to question; certainly many of the plot elements, particularly the twist ending, strain credulity past the breaking point. But historicity is no more central to this movie than it was to “The Color of Money” or “The Sting”—the question is whether the story works as entertainment, and the answer is that it does, sporadically. Mostly that’s due to Sumpter, who’s sufficiently likable that he makes Augie somebody you can care about and root for. (That’s so even though a speech about his sister he delivers to Natalie before leaving for Vegas is pretty shameless in its manipulation. The fact that Sumpter delivers it without a hitch is testimony to his acting ability.)
Otherwise, however, the performances veer toward near-burlesque. One expects that of McDonald, who’s never been known for subtlety. Still, Riverboat is an over-the-top character, and so the scenery-chewing, while sometimes painful, is understandable. The same defense can be made for LaNasa, who’s equally over-the-top. But why Nouri should have chosen to play to the rafters, sporting an accent it’s difficult even to identify, is less defensible. The others—including Murray—tend to overplay too, though not as badly. “The Squeeze” is technically okay—Taron Lexton’s cinematography is attractive enough, and the editing (by Eric Treiber and Alexa Vier) is good, particularly in the golf sequences, shot—aficionados of the sport will appreciate knowing—at a couple of courses in Wilmington, North Carolina, as well as the Wynn course in Las Vegas.
“The Squeeze” won’t efface memories of the best caper pictures of the past, sports-related or not. Golfers, however, who after all are accustomed to things not always going right on the fairway, may well find it a pleasant diversion. At least it shouldn’t tee them off.