Time was when getting your name above the title was the height of an actor's ambition. Nowadays, it's getting your name in the title -- and if you're Kenny Rogers, you don't have to wait around for the privilege.
His very first movie is called "Kenny Rogers as the Gambler" (Channel 9 at 9 p.m.), and although some may view that title as presumptuous, the movie itself is a complete vindication of Rogers' credit-negotiating strategy. Rogers is clearly an actor who should demand everything he can get while he can get it.
The movie begins as another one of those shoot-em-up, laugh-em-up yarns about a gang of heavy-rollers gathering for the annual poker showdown. But that weary formula yields, ere long to others: The young hotshot tagging along with the old pro . . . The long-lost son reunited with his father . . . The ex-prostitute trying to make a new life in genteel society.
See you. Raise you. I'll play these. Shut up and deal.
Rogers is completely unobjectionable as a gimpy card shark named Bardy Hawkes, although the part -- if it called for anyone at all -- would seem to call for an older, gimpier performer on the Dean Martin-Jack Elam model. As his sidekick "Billy Montana," however. Bruce Boxleitner is actively obnoxious. (This is, to all intents and purposes, the same role Boxleitner plays in "The Baltimore Bullet" opposite James Coburn. Perhaps he is revving up to be the cute sidekick of the '80s).
Both Rogers and Boxleitner might have come through a little cleaner without the presence of Clu Gulager as Rogers' arch-nemesis "Rufe Bennett." The problem with Gulager is that he can act, which tends to call attention to the shortage of that skill -- at least as demonstrated here -- in some of his colleagues.
But admist all its drab losing cards, "Kenny Rogers as the Gambler" deals out one startling hand. Around the halfway mark, if you can keep your eyes open, you will see a horse rear up on its hind legs, whinny, lose its balance and fall flat on its keester.