For Keeps? [1988]

You don't have to be a Kenny Rogers fan to enjoy his popular Gambler telefilms. Inspired by Rogers's 1978 hit song (which is replayed in each film) and beginning with The Gambler in 1980, this low-key series of two-night, four-hour broadcasts drew a majority of Rogers's loyal fans, and they hold up today as likeable showcases for Kenny and a lot of young 'n' old genre stalwarts. The Gambler Returns: Luck of the Draw (1991) has an irresistible hook: As feisty Reba McEntire partners up with Rogers's Brady Hawkes, the hoary plot features a posse of stars from classic TV Westerns, from Gene Barry's Bat Masterson to David Carradine as swift-kickin' Kwai-Chang Caine, from the '70s ABC series Kung Fu. Hairstyles are wrong, production values are adequate, and the plot's disposable: On the eve of Congressional outlaw of gambling, Reba recruits Kenny to gamble cross-country from Mexico to finance a final championship poker match in San Francisco. Bloodless shoot-outs ensue as greedy villains follow their trail, but the relaxed pacing allows leg-room for multiple subplots and supporting characters, most played by still-ornery veterans of the genre. Playing for Keeps (1994) is even lankier in its rhythms, and by then Rogers was comfortably wearing his role like an old leather glove. The plot drops Kenny and Mariska Hargitay (who'd later costar in Law & Order: SVU) into a languid rehash of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but its father-'n'-son reunion is played for keeps, as it were, and it gives this chummy TV movie some added dramatic heft. [Note: Although both films run 180 minutes, Artisan has inexplicably divided Luck of the Draw on discs 1 and 2; Playing for Keeps fits entirely on disc 2.] --Jeff Shannon

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