Rating: ** [2 stars out of 4]
A pool-shark drama too closely follows in the footsteps of past indie-film heroes.
More than a decade ago, Mars Callahan and Chris Corso wrote a script for a pool-shark movie, called "Poolhall Junkies." Callahan held tough when producers wanted to buy the script for others to star in and direct.
Finally, in a Cinderella story reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone's writing and starring in "Rocky," Callahan persuaded Christopher Walken to play a major role. This drew other stars -- Chazz Palmintieri, Rick Schroeder, Alison Eastwood and the late Rod Steiger -- and enough money to get the movie made, with Callahan directing and playing the lead.
Now, here's the sad part of the story: If Callahan had made "Poolhall Junkies" when the script was first written, it's likely he would have taken every award at Sundance and greased his way to stardom. But in 2003, this self-consciously gritty drama (filmed in Salt Lake City) plays like another Tarantino rip-off, and Callahan's hat-trick as actor, director and co-writer makes him look like an Ed Burns wannabe.
Callahan plays Johnny, a pool shark who wants to quit the life of a hustler and join the pro circuit. No way, says his mentor Joe (Palmintieri), who sabotages Johnny's dream of turning pro. When he finds out 15 years later, Johnny leaves Joe and gets a "real" job. But the lure of the pool hall still beckons, to the displeasure of his girlfriend Tara (Eastwood).
Tara, a law student, introduces Johnny to Mike (Walken), a rich lawyer who likes Johnny's game and attitude. When Joe returns with his new protege, Brad (Schroeder) -- and hustles Johnny's hot-headed brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum, sporting more hair than as Lex Luthor on "Smallville") out of a large chunk of money -- everything comes down to a grudge-heavy match between Johnny and Brad.
To his credit, Callahan captures the pool-shark life, from small-time hustles to big cons, in charming detail. He finds some seedy locations in supposedly squeaky-clean Salt Lake City. He knows good talent, like Palmintieri and Walken, and has the good sense to let them loose.
Unfortunately, not even Walken can deliver Callahan's pseudo-Raymond Chandler dialogue -- as when Mike gives Johnny a pep talk that concludes, "Every once in a while, the lion has to show the jackals who he is" -- without prompting unintentional giggles. Also dragging the movie down are Danny's posse of annoying pals (including Anson Mount and Ernie Reyes Jr.), who act like every moment in life is the diner scene from "Reservoir Dogs."
For its faults, though, "Poolhall Junkies" shows Callahan has talent and street smarts. With luck, the movie will open up chances for him to make more movies. If he gets to make one the same decade he wrote it, he may be on to something.
Rating: * [1 star out of 4]
"Poolhall Junkies" is the cinematic equivalent of a train wreck. As much as you'd like to turn away from this complete and total misfire, you can't take your eyes off it.
You also can't help but feel embarrassed for everyone involved in this billiards-based dramatic thriller, especially the cast. It makes you wonder if some blackmail material was used to get people as talented as Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Walken and the late Rod Steiger (all former Oscar nominees or winners) to appear in it.
(Because the film was almost completely shot in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas, it's an embarrassment for Utah as well.)
Perhaps the film's only saving grace is that it's overwhelmingly hilarious in its ineptitude. While you'd like to think that's what they were aiming for, it's clear that wasn't the case.
The title could refer to several characters in the film, but more specifically to Johnny (director/co-writer/star Mars Callahan), a pool shark who's trying to go straight at the behest of his girlfriend, Tara (Alison Eastwood -- Clint's daughter).
But it's not easy. His younger brother, Danny (Michael Rosenbaum), keeps trying to drag him back in. And then there's Johnny's mentor, Joe (Palminteri), who's brought another pro (Rick Schroder) into town to show up his former protege.
And when Danny runs afoul of Joe, a showdown becomes inevitable. Fortunately, Johnny has at least one unexpected ally: Tara's uncle (Walken), who's got his own reasons for helping him.
The film's four-letter-word-peppered, tough-guy dialogue pegs it for what it is: another Quentin Tarantino wanna-be, albeit one that's nearly 10 years too late. (Comparing it favorably to the classic "The Hustler" or Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" is giving it credit it doesn't deserve.)
And as awful as Callahan's sneered delivery is, his performance is not the film's worst. Eastwood, who possesses almost none of her famous father's on-screen magnetism, takes the prize for that.
As for the supporting cast, Walken seems to be the only one who realizes how ridiculously bad this material is. So he gives a knowingly campy performance that belongs in a much better film than this one.
"Poolhall Junkies" is rated R for excessive use of strong, sexually related profanity, crude sexual slang and racial epithets, violence (beatings and some gunplay) and brief sexual contact. Running time: 94 minutes.
"Poolhall Junkies" is populated by professional hustlers who are consistently too dumb to know when they're being hustled. I would think accomplished con men would know a con when they see one, but evidently not.
The film was directed by its star, Mars Callahan, who gives himself fifth billing behind Chazz Palminteri, Rod Steiger, Michael Rosenbaum and Rick Schroder, for crying out loud. Callahan co-wrote the film with fellow pool shark Chris Corso. The two obviously know their game -- but their game is pool, not filmmaking.
Callahan plays Johnny Doyle, aka the Sidepocket Kid, who showed promise as a youngster but who was held back by his mentor, Joe (Chazz Palminteri), for reasons Joe does not deign to share with us.
Now, as an adult, Johnny has tried to go straight but misses the con. He has a girlfriend, Tara (Alison Eastwood), whose voice sounds exactly the same when she is angry as when she is happy. She is angry when she catches him hustling again, but happy when he's going to his dead-end construction job.
Under the tutelage of Mike (Christopher Walken), a rich lawyer with a knack for pool, Johnny begins playing again. He's forsaken the evil Joe, who has a new pupil now, played by a forlorn-looking Rick Schroder.
Johnny has a younger brother, played by Michael Rosenbaum, and a bunch of friends who worship him and engage in hijinks to pad out the film's running time. The late Rod Steiger is also in this movie, but he doesn't really do anything except look owlish and make you feel sorry that this, of all things, had to be his last film.
My favorite dumb hustle in the film is when Johnny cons a guy into giving him a job selling motor homes. He tells the man he's so psychic, he can tell "where you got your shoes." If he guesses right, he has to give him a job. The man takes the bet, then smugly informs Johnny that he bought them on a cruise in international waters, so no matter what he guesses, he'll be wrong. Then Johnny says, "I don't care where you bought them. What I said was that I could guess where you GOT them. And where you GOT them is on your feet." Duly defeated through guile and semantics, the guy GIVES HIM THE JOB.
The acting is an extension of the dialogue, which is over-the-top and laughable. It's the sort of movie where someone can describe a character as being from "the good side of the tracks" and mean it. Elsewhere, someone says of the Sidepocket Kid that "the cue was part of his arm, and the balls had eyes." This is high-quality bad dialogue we're talking about here.
And pool playing? Why, there's plenty of it. Very few images in the film are NOT of people playing pool. It was shot entirely in Salt Lake City -- you'll catch a glimpse of the LDS temple in one scene -- but it could have been anywhere. Nearly every scene takes place in a room with a pool table in it, with cocky men standing around placing bets, clearly more interested in the outcome than we could ever be.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 4]
One of the things I like best about "Poolhall Junkies" is its lack of grim desperation. Its characters know that pool is a game and do not lead lives in which every monent is a headbutt with fate. Yes, there are fights, weapons are drawn and old scores are settled, but the hero's most important bet is made to help his girl get a job she wants, the two archrivals are clearly destined to become friends and Christopher Walken gets to deliver one of his famous monologues. He starts out, "Have you ever watched one of those animal channels?" and we are grinning already.
This is a young man's film, humming with the fun of making it. It was directed and co-written by Gregory "Mars" Callahan, who also plays the leading role, Johnny Doyle, who was so good when he was a kid that "the cue was part of his arm and the balls had eyes." He never wanted to grow up to be a pool hustler. He wanted to join the pro tour. He's a good player, but he's not one of those nuts whose eyeballs spin like pinwheels when he's lining up a shot.
Johnny was more or less abandoned by his parents and adopted by Joe (Chazz Palminteri), a manager of young pool talent. Joe likes taking his cut from the kid's earnings, and Johnny grows up before he discovers that Joe destroyed his invitation to join the pros. That leads to a scene in which Joe breaks the kid's hand, but not his thumb, and then seeks more revenge by taking a new protege named Brad (Rick Schroder) under his management. Joe also involves Johnny's kid brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) in big trouble.
Johnny has a girlfriend named Tara (Alison Eastwood) who's in law school and doesn't approve of pool hustling, so Johnny gets a job as a construction carpenter, but the nails do not have eyes. Johnny and Tara are invited to a party at the home of a rich lawyer, where they meet her Uncle Mike (Walken), one of the few actors in movie history who always draws a quiet rustle of pleasure from the audience the first time he appears on the screen.
And so on. The plot you are already generally familiar with. There will be high-stakes games of pool with lives and fortunes, etc., hanging in the balance. That goes with the territory. "Poolhall Junkies" is a pleasure not because it rivets us with unbearable poolhall suspense but because it finds a voluptuous enjoyment in the act of moviemaking. You get the sense that "Mars" Callahan, who I have never met, woke during the night to hug himself that he was getting to make this movie.
"Poolhall Junkies" has big moments of inspiration, like the Walken speech and a couple of other monologues. It has movie-fan moments, as when Rod Steiger, as the manager of a poolhall, gets to stick out his lower jaw and lay it on the line (this was Steiger's final role). It has Callahan as a serious kid with chiseled dark Irish features, who is cool like McQueen was cool--no big thing, just born that way.
And then it has, well, this corny stuff that Callahan kept in the screenplay because he's no doubt the kind of guy who doesn't like to walk into a bar without a joke to tell. There's a lawyer joke ("What do you call it when you have 10,000 lawyers buried up to their necks in the sand?"). And the oldest trick bet in the book ("I'll bet you I can tell you where you got your shoes"). And a barroom hustle recycled directly out of Steve Buscemi's "Trees Lounge" ("I'll bet I can drink both of these pints faster than you can drink both of those shots"). I mean, come on.
These little hustles set up bigger ones which are also the oldest gags in the book, but the movie delivers on them and has fun while it's doing it. Callahan plays the character of Johnny Doyle not to persuade you he's the meanest mother in the city, but simply to demonstrate that it would not be wise to bet large sums of money against him in the game of pool. There is an innocence at work here that reminds me of young Sylvester Stallone, who gave Rocky Balboa pet turtles named Cuff and Link.
Is this a great movie? Not at all. Is it more or less consistently entertaining? Yes. Do Walken and Palminteri do things casually that most actors could not do at all? Yes. Did I feel afterward as if I had been dragged through the blood and grime of the mean streets? No, but I felt like I had a good time at the movies.