Directed By Randall Batinkoff
Starring – Eric Mabius, Scott Wolf, Will Sasso
The Plot – In 2007, when NBA referee Tim Donaghy (Mabius) got caught betting on games he worked, he said two men associated with the Gambino crime family; a bookie named Baba Battista (Sasso) and a drug dealer named Tommy Martino (Wolf) – threatened to kill his family if he didn’t give them gambling picks. That’s what Donaghy told the FBI, that’s what he told 60 Minutes, and that’s what he testified in court. But that’s not what really happened. That’s not even close. INSIDE GAME is the untold true story of one of the biggest scandals in sports history.
Rated R for adult language and drug use throughout, and some sexual content
– Sasso of truth. While you could poke enough fun at the casting, for how any of these lead actors don’t look a thing like the real life counterparts they are portraying, or the fact that Michael O’Keefe, who plays Tim’s father in the movie, is only sixteen years older than Mabius in real life, there is actually one solid performance in the bunch that constantly drove my interest, and it was that of Mad TV alum Will Sasso, who treats this like the Oscar winning turn that it so evidently was not going to be. Sasso is a wonder to behold, chewing away at no shortage of scenery throughout the movie, all the while embodying a drug and gambling addict with the nerves of a mental patient. It brings forth the urgency and dramatic depth within a couple of scenes that easily make them stand out in the film’s finished product, and preserves Sasso as an actor who deserves more lead opportunities in front of the camera. While everyone else is phoning in their performance as nothing more than a paycheck film, it is Will’s constant professionalism and commitment to this underwhelming production that prove he is simply too good to be involved with such garbage.
– High stakes. Even when the storytelling undercuts the opportunities that should be presented from lengthy exposition, the enveloping of some truly gripping scenes of tension materialize in the film’s early third act that earn your investment into it all over again. In addition to the many adversaries coming for this trio of friends because of what they owe them, it’s more so the deterioration of their family lives that strongly make you empathize for innocent people with nothing to do with said situation, except for the unlucky inheritance of a father with a clearly evident problem. Right up until Tim’s final game as a referee, you feel the weight of what would normally be a championship atmosphere in any sports movie, but here it represents the despair and risk of laying everything on the line for one final pay-off, and attains a level of pins and needles for this group’s darkest hour that it rightfully should not.
– Not boring. I know that sounds like a back-handed compliment, but the film’s air-tight pacing through a barely 94 minute run time keeps things constantly moving forward, leaving very little down time in between the very high’s and low’s that shape this evolving friendship. In that regard, if there is one thing that Batinkoff knows, it’s how to shape a story for fans and non-fans of sports alike, that limits boredom from ever setting in with their experience. It helps that its storytelling has a severe case of attention deficit disorder, in that it never stays grounded to soak up as much about curveballs that are thrown their way in playing the system. But more so it’s the tightness of establishing every scene as something pivotal to the development of where this story and these characters end up, giving the film an intriguing presence despite the many things that it does wrong.
– Cheap production. The aspect isn’t so much a surprise, but rather how badly it truly is. Tight shot composition’s during game sequences limit the obviousness of small crowds for the production scene, stilted editing that is consistently around two seconds off for where it should be cutting scenes, and of course the film’s lack of funds for purchasing the logo’s that these NBA teams familiarize themselves with. The last one is surprising because the NBA logo itself is represented a couple of times in the film, but I guess the line was drawn there to dig deeper into the visual integrity of the teams. Aside from this, the film’s cinematography is lacking of any style or substantial shot meaning to carve out something unique to fight off a miniscule production budget. It gives the film a made-for-TV quality that only looks worse when it’s shown on a big screen, making this one of the more strange studio releases of the 2019 fall season.
– Who’s story? It’s strange that Donaghy is a supporting character in a film about his dealings on and off the court, but even more than that it’s how the film goes these long span of minutes without even hearing from him, establishing Sasso and Wolf as the central leads for how the focus remains so tightly prominent with them. There’s no examples of self-reflection or anything complex about the character that makes his cause all the more deserving for what he’s robbed of, and makes me think that his involvement in the picture was very limited if anything at all. It would be like making a movie about the music of Kanye West, and then establishing Jay-Z the central protagonist. This is easily the biggest problem with the film’s overwhelming lack of information that goes unaddressed with a film that was supposed to donate 94 minutes to tackle such a subject. It’s kind of shameful.
– Magic of montage. As I previously mentioned, the exposition is limited throughout this film, and what this does is causes character traits that weren’t there before to pop-up in a way that makes us feel like we’re watching a completely different film. An example is in Sasso’s drug use, which goes from conventionally stable to out-of-control chaotic within about ten minutes of screen time, disallowing anything to materialize naturally because of something pivotal that transpired on-screen. There are three of these montages used throughout the film to fill in the gaps, and it’s compared to something like the movie “Click”, where Adam Sandler fast-forwards through key moments of his life, and is then surprised at the current state of where he lands. There’s enough intrigue in the story that it should’ve just went the documentary route with its story, instead of a film that meanders character motivations in a way that makes them feel bi-polar.
– Detestable characters. This was the hardest angle to get through for me personally, because there’s never a shred of empathy or hope that these trio of man-children will escape the inevitable fates that await them. Compare this to another real life story depicted in film like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and you start to understand and appreciate how Scorsese never overlooks the horrible things that these men in suits do, but does outline them with a layer of humanity that helps us understand their reasons for doing so. In “Inside Game”, no such thing exists, as these are three Philly boys who do drugs, cheat on their significant others, and put their families in financial jeopardy in ways that are so selfishly condemning towards the appreciation of their characters. It made it to where I couldn’t wait until karma caught up to them, offering no level of civility to the perils of greed that overcome them whole.
– Fumbled sound mixing. This is always one of my favorite productional aspects to point out because it’s something so easy to attain, that nearly every movie stumbles on. For this movie, the two that I point to are in the heat of the arena, as well as a scene early on within the club, where the noise of others in the setting is about as established as a paper bag blowing somewhere in the background. The conversations between characters aren’t muffled or overrun in the slightest, and even when a character isn’t shouting or mouthing words in slow, bold movements of the mouth, you can still hear them like they are shouting in your ear. Try to do that the next time you’re in a dance club with a friend, and write down every word they said to you. I guarantee you won’t get half of their words correct.
– Movie cliche 1,363. This is another personal favorite of mine during the sports genre, for how ridiculous it appears in conjuring up reality. In this instance, Tim’s parents are watching the basketball game at home that he is referee on, and even during moments where a play is being run, the camera within the broadcast is focused on him and his reactions towards plays. Once again, imagine this in the real world, where Lebron James is bouncing a basketball out of the frame of our commitment to documenting referee Ken Mauer watching the play in question. This is obviously only done to illustrate the communication between two characters who are in a different setting from one another, but it soils the values of immersing ourselves into the realism of this established environment for the sake of visual stimulation.
– Strange narration. This is not done by Donaghy, but rather his best friend Tommy, who is arguably a distant third to audience investment between this trio of characters. It’s bad enough that his narration offers only an echoing quality to what transpires on-screen before us, but he also only pops up around three or four times in the film to begin with, making the gimmick feel every bit as unnecessary as it is unsubstantial to its inclusion. Finally, the last drop-in features no shortage of basketball puns to throw into the comparison of what the guys are currently going through, and it got so annoying that I screamed out “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” in my empty theater. Yes, even at over 1400 reviews, films still find a way to antagonize me in a way that makes me quite literally scream.
My Grade: 3/10 or F+