Rating: *1/2 [1.5 out of 4]
Poolhall Junkies has all the ingredients for a quintessential guy flick. It's got the insider's view of a macho subculture (the world of pool hustlers), salty dialogue, locker-room sex talk and cocky young actors mixing it up with a few screen icons (Christopher Walken, Rod Steiger).
Moreover, it's the time-honoured tale of a dude who has to step up and be the man. A real student of the genre, Mars Callahan -- Poolhall Junkies' star, co-writer and director -- cops his moves from XY favourites such as Diner, Mean Streets and Swingers, as well as the two most famous films about pool sharks, The Hustler and The Color of Money. Unfortunately, Callahan can't walk the walk or talk the talk -- what should be a Hungry-Man Dinner of a movie tastes like soggy quiche.
Callahan plays Johnny, a young hustler who could've been a contender as a professional pool player if he hadn't spent the past 15 years under the thumb of a two-bit hood. Johnny struggles to go legit after he splits from Joe (Chazz Palminteri), much to the relief of his law-student girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) and the surprise of his adoring brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) and their crew of buddies.
But Johnny must have blue chalk in his veins because he can't stay away from the poolhall run by the fatherly Nick (Steiger). Johnny finds a potential benefactor in Tara's uncle Mike (Walken), a rich lawyer who's fascinated by Johnny's world. Joe is none too pleased over the loss of his protege, and with the help of stoic young pro Brad (Rick Schroder), he seeks revenge on Johnny and Danny.
Callahan's love and knowledge of the game is obvious, but when he gave himself the lead role in Poolhall Junkies, he seriously miscast himself. Terminally low on chops and charisma, he walks through the movie as if he just flunked out of the Edward Burns School of Acting. He doesn't even belong in the same room as Walken or Steiger (who died last summer), who both know how to enliven even the clunkiest lines. As for Palminteri, though he has generated menace in past portrayals of heavies, whatever mystique he had left vanished when he started shilling for Vanilla Coke.
As a director, Callahan wants the verve that Martin Scorsese brought to The Color of Money, but his visual approach is careless, relying too much on cliched slo-mo and hasty edits -- the only evidence of Johnny's much-vaunted prowess is a few trick shots.
Yet Poolhall Junkies' biggest failing is that it doesn't convey the simple pleasures of hanging out with the guys. The banter in the script by Callahan and co-writer Chris Corso has little of the zip of Jon Favreau's scripts for Swingers or Made; it's all cuss words, trite philosophizing and crappy jokes your dad used to tell. If the art of a true hustler is, as Joe puts it, "beating a man out of his money and making him like it," Callahan blows it big-time with any mark who shells out to see his film.
Rating: ** [2 stars out of 5]
Mars Callahan is a hustler. The co-writer, director and star of Poolhall Junkies managed to get big stars Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Walken and the late Rod Steiger to act in his small, independent movie and has gotten a considerable buzz for the film based on its stars and early critical reaction. For what ultimately amounts to a straight-to-video-caliber film with slightly better acting, that's no small feat.
Actually, even the name actors in Callahan's film have done their share of video-store shelf-fillers, and it's a minor miracle that Poolhall Junkies isn't another one to add to the list. It's a cliche--riddled thriller that coasts by on the charisma of the veteran actors and some fancy cue work. Callahan plays Johnny, a poolhall prodigy who's invited to turn pro at 14, only to have his shady mentor, Joe (Palminteri), pull the plug on his chances. Fast forward 15 years, and Johnny is a successful hustler who resents his mentor for turning him into a criminal. He's got a little brother (Smallville's Michael Rosenbaum) with a posse of friends, all aspiring hustlers, and a girlfriend (Alison Eastwood) in law school who just wants him to quit the life. They have the same relationship that every criminal-with-heart-of-gold and long-suffering girlfriend have in every other movie like this:
Girlfriend: Quit hustling pool.
(Johnny hustles pool)
Girlfriend: That's it, I'm leaving you.
Johnny: Wait, I'll quit hustling pool.
(Johnny hustles pool, wins a lot of money)
Girlfriend: I love you.
Johnny breaks his ties with Joe, but of course, he can't keep from hustling. When his little brother ends up in hot water with Joe, Johnny's got to play one final game against Joe's new protege (Rick Schroder) for his brother's freedom and a boatload of money. Guess how it all turns out?
Callahan muddles up the story with a large cast, including the aforementioned girlfriend and aspiring hustler posse, as well as Steiger's grizzled old poolhall owner and Walken as a devil-may-care millionaire who backs Johnny up. Walken's performance is great, and every moment he's onscreen you forget how tired the script is and just listen to him talk. He gives the film's central monologue, something about lions and their domain, which makes absolutely no sense but is nonetheless completely riveting. You can almost believe that he could inspire Johnny with the nonsense he spouts simply because it's Walken doing the spouting.
The pool scenes are shot with the kind of loving care that shows Callahan must have a deep respect for the game, but that doesn't do anything for the story. After three or four impressive shots of balls being hit into pockets, it's not all that visually interesting, either. There's also a great soundtrack, with effective use of James Brown's funk classic "Payback," that suggests a much cooler movie. At the very least, it gives you an idea of what Callahan was reaching for, even though he didn't quite make it.
There are a few twists and turns along the way to the predictable ending, but they can't redeem a plot we've seen a thousand times before. With a better lead and more inspired direction, Poolhall Junkies might have been decent entertainment. But Callahan the actor is the biggest liability in Callahan the director's film. His main method of emoting seems to be jutting out his chin and squinting his eyes, like a cross between Jay Leno and Marlon Brando. It's not very effective. Walken and Palminteri both look like they're having tons of fun, and the showdown between the two at the end of the film completely eclipses anything Callahan musters up for the entire 94 minutes. He should learn what Quentin Tarantino and Edward Burns clearly haven't: Be an actor or be a director, because you can't do both.
With a bigger star and a little more money behind it, Poolhall Junkies could easily have been a throwaway blockbuster with some flashy moves. With Callahan at the helm, it's a throwaway indie movie with some flashy moves, however much he'd like to hustle you into thinking it's something more.
Were this a Quentin Tarantino film, I would consider it a disaster. Poolhall Junkies is like so many too-smart films that came out in the wake of Pulp Fiction, full of smoothies who cruise in and out of scenes, but never really populate them, and cool language that masks the emptiness of the film's core. But, writer-director-star Mars Callahan is a newcomer to the industry, and so I'm willing to cut him a bit of slack. His film is all flash, a hustler who can do a crazy trick shot but wouldn't last an hour in a tournament, but it's a decent first effort, at least as good as Clerks, and hints at a possible future for Callahan in Hollywood. He's got the looks and the poise of a Jason Lee, and an eye for the camera that could make him the next Doug Liman, but he does have some learnin' to do first.
Poolhall Junkies suffers from All-About-Me-itis, the common writer-director-star syndrome wherein every facet of the film is chosen to make the filmmaker look good. Every character and scene is here for one reason: to set up the big final scene where Callahan's character, Johnny Doyle, gets to hustle the hustler and play the game of the century. It makes countless scenes write-offs, pointless and forgettable. Entire subplots exist solely to provide one small part of the final scene, such as a handful of money or a brother in trouble. For Junkies to succeed, Callahan needs that final scene to slay, and it comes close, but not close enough. The ending doesn't fully work for the same reason many other scenes in the film don't work; characters fail to notice things that the rest of the film has taught us they will notice; a hustler who knows all of the tricks misses an obvious one, a player who is great suddenly misses constantly, a girlfriend hates her man's pool habits, until she gets a promotion and suddenly it is okay. As a screenwriter, Callahan makes a good director.
The presence of some veteran actors helps to raise the otherwise painful level of Poolhall Junkies' performances. Christopher Walken is as enjoyable to watch as always, getting some delicious dialogue near the end of the film. Rod Steiger, in his final performance, brings gravitas to a role that barely deserves it, and Chazz Palminteri delivers his lines bravely, but can't get past the limitations of the character handed to him. The younger actors are all clones of the cast of American Pie and similar teen comedies, with copycat acting styles and a lot of room for improvement.
If Poolhall Junkies represents the best Mars Callahan has to offer, I am afraid his career will be short and forgotten. But if, like Kevin Smith and Clerks, this represents a mere wetting of the toes for Callahan, then he could make a name for himself. Poolhall Junkies is derivative and in many ways cliched, but it is much better than many films made by more experienced filmmakers. For instance, I would rather sit through this film ten more times than suffer through even ten minutes of Kangaroo Jack. I look forward to Callahan's next feature.
Rating: * [1 star out of 4]
Obviously the spawn of a post-Rounders discussion ("Hey, that was great, but wouldn't it be better with pool instead of poker?"), Gregory 'Mars' Martin's Poolhall Junkies also counts among its plunder victims The Hustler, The Color of Money, On the Waterfront, and--pick any David Mamet. With the late Rod Steiger as a crusty pool hall owner, Christopher Walken in his typical role as actor in an actor-less stew, and a law school student girlfriend (Alison Eastwood, similar to, but somehow more expressionless than, Bridget Fonda) in a plush pad who has a lot of morals except when it comes to nepotism and winning a job in a pool game, Poolhall Junkies is B-list, B-movie garbage that plows through its clockwork machinations with a kind of juvenile bluster that keens like a hammer to the brainpan.
In Salt Lake City, that seething hotbed of urban nightlife, Johnny (Martin) haunts the local pool halls, hustling games with his keeper (Chazz Palminteri) in tow until discovering one night that his childhood dreams of playing on the pro tour were sabotaged by none other than his very own felt jungle Svengali. Eager to avenge his betrayal Oedipus-style, Johnny catches the eye of another sugar daddy (Walken), proves to be a bad influence on a quartet of buddies (whose purpose seems mainly to be a means by which the picture can also rip-off Diner), and tries to go straight until circumstance draws him into The Final Match with his ex-mentor and said mentor's new apprentice (a reptilian Rick Schroder).
The question of why Johnny doesn't just join the pro tour at this point, thus legitimizing his lifestyle to his hypocritical zombie girlfriend, is never posed--recognizing, perhaps, that the posing of said question would result in a movie about thirty-minutes long. The pool scenes, best described as Scorsese-lite (and a poster of The Color of Money in one hall is less homage than ironic), are a series of obnoxiously-filmed shots set up from a Robert Byrne book of set pool trickshots and sucker bets. The soundtrack the sort of thing that narrates the action (James Brown's "Payback" is the overused revenge theme) and Martin's performance oozing the sort of unctuous arrogance that would be justifiably punished in slasher movies with a machete to the jugular, Poolhall Junkies presents its warmed over leftovers as filet and fois gras. Martin is trying to build a better mousetrap by painting the old mousetrap with an oily sheen of insincere slick, and like Johnny's dimwitted marks ("I bet I can tell you where you got your shoes...you got 'em on yo' feet!"), if you fall for that dinosaur shuffle, you deserve what you get.
Rating: **1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
EXCERPT: "This brash little indie is oddly endearing and fun to be around."
Rating: ** [2 stars out of 4]
In "Poolhall Junkies" someone always seems to be telling the young pool shark played by Mars Callahan that he's a natural. "You have the ability to be the best," growls the owner of a local pool hall, a pugnacious old-timer played with characteristic intemperance by the late Rod Steiger. "If you think you're a loser, you will be a loser."
As might be expected in a movie in which characters deliver speeches straight from the self-help shelf, this Norman Vincent Peale homily works like a charm for Johnny although not for Callahan who, in his duel role of co-writer and director, quickly proves the limits of the power of positive thinking.
Narrated in intermittent voice-over, the film traces the ups, downs and trick shots of Callahan's Johnny, who struggles with his talent, his girlfriend, Tara (Alison Eastwood) and his Svengali-like mentor (Chazz Palminteri). It will be familiar to admirers of "The Hustler" as well as any other story in which self-doubt haunts self-realization. The thing is that Johnny's problem is not really a lack of self-confidence but a sense of purpose.
It isn't that nothing happens in "Poolhall Junkies," it's that nothing interesting does. For much of the time, Johnny just shoots pool, perfects the part of the aggrieved boyfriend ("I play, Tara, that's what I do") and hangs around his baby shark brother (Michael Rosenbaum). When hustling and hanging out prove a dead end, he gives the straight world a run, which means for about five minutes he tries to drive nails into planks and, somewhat more colorfully, hawk mobile homes.
Callahan, who directed his first feature, "Zigs," under the more prosaic moniker Gregory "Mars" Martin, shares the romance of the pool hall but neither his script nor his direction ever transcend the milieu's cliches. The film groans under the weight of its platitudes no matter how lightly Johnny dances around a pool table. Like Ed Burns and Vin Diesel, both of whom have starred in features they've directed, Callahan has an attractive self-confidence that helps smooth over the roughness, but like them, he might best apply his talent in front of the camera.
The strength of the film is, unsurprisingly, Christopher Walken, whose gift for transcending weak material has developed into something of an art form. As an enigmatic rich guy with money to burn who takes a liking to Johnny, Walken doesn't absolve "Poolhall Junkies" of its sins, but he does go a long way toward making the time pass. As he rolls words around in his mouth, changing the beat between lines and playing with the pitch as effortlessly as Yma Sumac, you're again reminded that it's a rare performer who can bewitch us by making us completely forget what he's saying.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexual content
Times guidelines: There are as many expletives as in the collected David Mamet.
Can pool hustling lead to happiness? That's the weighty question behind Poolhall Junkies, a showcase for writer, director and star Mars Callahan. Redeemed somewhat by the intermittent presence of a few genuine stars, the film isn't as dire an experience as one might expect. It is, however, about as disposable as a B-movie can get.
As a teen pool prodigy, Johnny Doyle (Mars Callahan) had a chance to become a professional, but his plans were thwarted by his crooked mentor Joey (Chazz Palminteri). Johnny waits 15 years to enact revenge, using a friendly drug dealer in a scam that leaves Joey severely beaten and out for vengeance. In love with wealthy law student Tara (Alison Eastwood), Johnny vows to go straight. But the real world doesn't seem to be interested in a pool shark with the moniker "Side Pocket Johnny."
Meanwhile, Joey enlists professional hustler Brad (Rick Schroder) in his scheme to get back at Johnny. The ultimate goal: take all of Johnny's money, beat him senseless, and leave his brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum), a budding pool talent and blues singer, rotting in jail. In a parking lot one night, Joey breaks Johnny's wrist. Joey then hustles Danny into insurmountable debt, forcing the wounded Johnny into a one-on-one match with Brad. But Joey hasn't counted on Mike (Christopher Walken), a wealthy retiree who doesn't mind staking Johnny at Nick's (Rod Steiger) pool hall.
The final match--a blur of trick shots and fancy camerawork--doesn't add up to much. In fact, few of the pool moments generate any suspense whatsoever, just as the attempts at teen humor from Danny and his friends fall flat. Still, Poolhall Junkies could have been worse. Writer-director Callahan seems to respect real pool experts, is dubious about wealthy lawyers, and is dead-set against evil con artists.
As a star, Callahan projects more confidence than acting ability. His script allows his character to swagger through most of the film without having to change expressions. Professional actors generally bail him out of scenes requiring anything more than a vacant glower. Palminteri shreds whatever scenery he can find, but Eastwood gives a restrained performance that's quietly appealing. In his brief turn, Steiger summons up fond memories of far better films. Walken seems to be having a blast, even when asked to deliver a go-get-'em speech starring a lion as king of the jungle. But not even Walken can make Poolhall Junkies anything more than a minor curiosity.
Rating: ** [2 stars out of 4]
If it's hard to make a Western without John Wayne, it's even tougher to film a pool hall flick without Paul Newman - as "Poolhall Junkies" proves. This indie film - directed by, co-written by and starring Mars Callahan - plays like a hybrid of Newman classics "The Hustler" (1961) and "The Color of Money" (1986). All glorify dingy backroom games where money floats as freely as smoke, and youth gets lost under a smear of blue chalk.
Callahan plays Johnny Doyle, who, like Newman's Fast Eddie in "The Hustler," is a quick-lipped, cocky pool prodigy who never made it out of the minor leagues. His handler/father figure Joe (Chazz Palminteri) made sure of this, keeping his meal ticket far away from avenues of fame and big-time profit, protecting his investment and keeping the kid dependent. Early in "Poolhall Junkies," Doyle discovers Joe's betrayal, leading to an ugly split. Trying to do right by his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) and keep his kid brother (Michael Rosenbaum) out of trouble, Doyle tries to go straight, only to be sucked back into the hustle.
Sneering Palminteri almost collapses under the weight of the menacing heavy he has played one too many times. An impressive cast of Christopher Walken, Rick Schroder and Rod Steiger (in one of his final performances) pad out some small roles, and Rosenbaum (who plays Lex Luthor in "Smallville") steals the screen whenever he steps into frame. Despite Rosenbaum's spark, "Poolhall Junkies" never steps out of genre, offering "I-yam-whad-I-yam" diatribes and badly choreographed fight scenes. For example, Palminteri breaks Doyle's wrist (a la "The Hustler") in a kid-gloves performance befitting a high school production of "The Outsiders."
Callahan even has African-American compadres discussing the use of the N-word in a scene that is anachronistic and naive compared to the word's cultural saturation in "Pulp Fiction" and every Ice Cube comedy.
Callahan's naivete doesn't stop there. Halfway through the film, while attending a business party with his paralegal girlfriend, Doyle ends up playing pool with her boss (of course). Bets are made and upped, and Doyle wins his girl a job as a lawyer, once she passes the bar. Tara finds this out much later, and instead of being furious that he made her the subject of a bet - cheapening her legal career - she accepts it as a selfless sign of love. What a gal.
Like too many sports-related movies, this one falls back on that One Big Game, the final score that will set everything right. To his credit, Callahan conjures a memorable climatic con. But gambling an entire movie on a clever payoff doesn't compensate for 90 previous minutes of timeworn plot conceits and subpar dialogue.
Editorial Rating: Below Average
Johnny (Mars Callahan) was a teenage pool prodigy, but his manager and father figure Joe (Chazz Palminteri) kept him out of tournaments and instead taught him how to hustle. Grown-up and frustrated, Johnny casts Joe aside and tries to start over. But he can't avoid Joe forever, and soon the shark sets his sights on Johnny's little brother, Danny. Can Johnny redeem himself with the help of a new financial backer?
"Poolhall Junkies" is a bad movie, but admirable for its sheer effort. It attempts to bridge the gap between crusty hustling movies like "The Hustler" or "The Sting" and hip young comedies--Danny's friends chatter sitcom-style about fake breasts, throw raging parties and essentially act like they're in "American Pie." But try as it might to bring something new to the pool-hustling genre, "Junkies" always reverts to its 40-year-old tropes--without the cast or dialogue to pull them off.
A small and obscure pool hustler drama with a cast featuring Christopher Walken, Chazz Palminteri, and the late Rod Steiger sounds like a hustle all its own, more obvious than the old four-balls-off-the-table routine. But here the hustle lies in the reservations of the skeptics--Poolhall Junkies is a brassy bit of entertainment that makes up in hard-boiled showmanship what it lacks in subtlety. It doesn't take a mastermind to think up an enjoyable pool movie; all you need are a few tough-guy actors, dialogue you can smash concrete with, a dozen or so dazzling trick shots lined up, and it's more or less in the pocket. Co-writer and director Mars Callahan recognizes his limitations and shoots accordingly; he's the kind of hustler-filmmaker who's confident because he knows he's going to beat you by outthinking you. He recognizes that Poolhall Junkies isn't The Hustler (much less Chalk, Rob Nilsson's gritty, inventive indie drama from a couple years back), and he wears the contrivances of his plot on his sleeve, distracting you with zinging bushels of too-cool one-liners and inventive vulgarities until you can't chew any more. That he's cooked up such a macho, unabashed tribute to his elders easily carries the film across the finish line.
Callahan also stars as Johnny, a pool natural who as a kid was on the fast track to joining the pro circuit but was roped into late nights comprised of fast talking and faster money by his shady mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri). Fifteen years later, Johnny can't decide whether he finally wants to go legit or eke out a living in some lower-tier job at the urging of his girlfriend (Alison Eastwood, bland as the minimum estrogen quota required by law). Poolhall Junkies is not a film that makes its mark with its inventive storytelling. All of the film's extraneous threads and hangers-on (most of which include Johnny's younger brother Danny and his ragtag group of friends, all aspiring hustlers themselves, who act as a kind of geeky Greek chorus to Johnny's adventures) inevitably add up to a final showdown between Johnny and Joe, who's now put his stake behind an icy top-level pro (Rich Schroder).
Even if you can see each and every turn Poolhall Junkies will make fifteen minutes before it does, it's the kind of film built on vivid conversation and crackling archetypal character bits, and in those departments it's pure joy. Callahan's cocky, what-me-worry strut (which often recalls Ben Affleck's boyish callousness, only with a more genuine dash of irresponsibility) makes the perfect foil for his acting opposite a group of legends; he's not so much giving a performance of his own as he is adding fuel to their fire. Rod Steiger's swan song is a beauty; he takes the small role of Nick, the owner of Johnny's local hangout, and invests it with a dignity that seems to encapsulate every bit of wisdom and vitality the actor amassed over the years. After years of lending his time to one odious film after another, his line about "if you play with bums, you become a bum" takes on a knowing edge of sadness, but there's no remorse there. He's looking to the future and passing along his acumen, and his work here demonstrates that that he's no bum.
But the film is ultimately owned by Walken, who in only a couple of scenes seems more than willing to gluttonously walk away with the entire film by himself. His entrance features an offscreen line ("I'm gonna step outside and get some smog") that's so patently Walken in its delivery that it left me laughing so hard I missed most of his next scene, and the climax of the film isn't so much about Johnny's triumphant bank shots as it is about Walken's opportunity to stare down Palminteri in a clash of the titans, open a briefcase full of money, let that twinkle run through his eyes and give ol' Chazz the F--- You glare, the one that dares the other guy to just say one word back, just one. With moments like these it's easy to overlook Callahan's lapses in sensibility. Any filmmaker who goes out of his way to give great actors some scenery to chew on, and entertain us in the process, is down in my book. If the cue fits, wear it.
If you like your transfers extra grainy, you can't go wrong with this HBO Home Video release of Poolhall Junkies. But for all the grain on rampant display, the actual image is never fuzzy. Blacks aren't great but edge enhancement is non-existent and flesh tones are very warm. As for the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, dialogue is perfectly discernable and the sound of every eight ball being sunk comes across loud and clear.
Mars Callahan and the film's co-writer Chris Corso have lots of love for the cast and crew of Poolhall Junkies. Perhaps too much. The pair go on and on about their actors (how Chazz Palminteri upped the film's ante and how much they miss Rod Steiger) but go light on the production anecdotes. That means you'll have to suffer through a lot of dead air on this commentary track when no one is on screen. Also included here are cast and crew bios and original trailers for this film and Nicolas Cage's Sonny.
A low-profile DVD edition for sure, but you're probably just buying this disc for yet another Christopher Walken scenery-chewing smackdown, aren't you?
Since Reno is still a relatively small movie market, there are a bundle of films that never make it to local theaters. The ones we miss are small pictures without major studios to push them, and sometimes they're darn good.
This year, one of those MIAs was "Poolhall Junkies," a terrific independent feature about pool hustlers and the gritty underbelly of illegal gambling. At the heart of the action is Johnny Doyle (Mars Callahan), a kid who grew up hustling pool under the wing of his backer, Joe (Chaz Palminteri).
Johnny strikes out on his own, desperate to become a legitimate man and show his upper-crust girlfriend (Alison Eastwood) he can play it straight. But the lure of the pool halls is hard to resist.
The fast-paced picture sizzles with energy, and it's a tour de force for Callahan, who co-wrote and directed. He doesn't possess the technical mastery of more experienced directors, and occasionally he hits a wrong chord, but the story is such a blast it hardly matters.
Unfortunately, the DVD extras are a wash. Included are the obligatory cast and crew biographies, a theatrical trailer and an awful commentary by Callahan and co-writer Chris Corso. These guys may be talented, but they spend most of their time kissing up to the cast.
Movie grade: A-
Extras grade: C-
Rating: ** [2 stars out of 4]
When Christopher Walken saunters into "Poolhall Junkies," he kicks it from so-so to worthwhile.
Up until that point, "Poolhall" is a not-bad slice of sub-Tarantino chit-*%$#!-chat, with a bunch of likable lowlifes loafing around a pool table, trading zingers and trick shots.
Mars Callahan, who wrote, directed and stars, plays a hustler with a girlfriend who wants him to quit (Alison Eastwood, who offers surprisingly lively variations on the line, "All you care about is pool"). But he can't quit because it's in his blood, it makes him feel alive, it teaches him about life, it's a deathtrap, it's a suicide rap, etc.
A couple of things distinguish "Poolhall." First, there's the above-the-table shot of the billiards break, which works every one of the dozen times we see it. Something about the bright balls bouncing apart, the speed with which they disperse, the eye-of-God perspective and the violent sound of it makes it a thrill to watch. There's also the funny, feisty cast of pool sharks, who make the most of the scenes in which they Larry Flynt each other and spew talk that's trashier than a garbage route in Baghdad.
But, mostly, there's Walken, playing a patron of pool who spots Callahan some dough. Wearing what appears to be the same natty suit he wore in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" video, he glides through the movie like the Broadway hoofer he used to be. There's a playful, dangerous quality to his performance that makes us nervous about what's going to happen, and, although the movie doesn't quite deliver on his promise, he keeps us glued while we wait.
Rating: *** [3 out of 5]
The good news is it's not a requirement to be a pool shark to enjoy the hustles in Poolhall Junkies.
The snappy dialogue and cool characters provide enough pure entertainment to make this is a fun flick.
Gregory "Mars'' Martin, who wrote, directed and stars in Poolhall Junkies, is obviously hooked on pool and on the two classic poolhall movies, 1961's The Hustler and its 1986 sequel Color of Money. He weaves basically the same story that fuelled those two films.
Johnny Doyle (Martin) should have been a contender. As a teenager he showed enough promise to be welcomed into the pro circuit. Think of Johnny as the billiards version of Tiger Woods.
The problem is Johnny's mentor and trainer Joe (Chazz Palminteri) has other plans for his protege. He sees more money for him if he can turn Johnny into a pool hustler so he never tells Johnny about the invitations to participate in pro tournaments.
This leaves Johnny thinking he's second class in every aspect of his life. Fifteen years later, Johnny is still hustling for Joe until he learns the truth and rebels. He retires his pool cue which suits his rich girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) who wants him to find an honest job.
Johnny is no carpenter or salesman and just sinks lower into his self-loathing funk.
When Joe tricks Johnny's brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) and Danny's friends into losing their money to Joe's new hustler Brad (Rick Schroder), Johnny comes out of retirement. He takes on Brad in a winner-take-all game.
From Rocky to 8 Mile, this is obvious, familiar territory but, done as well as it has been here, it's effective. As a writer, Martin plays fast homage to David Mamet at least for the first half of the film with cutting jokes and machine-gun delivery of the dialogue. As the climax nears, Martin abandons dialogue for plot contrivances and romance.
Eastwood's Tara is beautiful but cold and wooden and it's difficult to decide whether these are the demands of the character or the shortcomings of the actress.
As a director, Martin moves his camera with ease and speed and then stops them dead for effect. His shots during the actual pool matches are electrifying, giving these sequence intensity and momentum.
As an actor, he has the easy swagger and sexy confidence of Vince Vaughn and Ben Affleck.
Martin's greatest hustle was getting the cast he did for Poolhall Junkies.
Palminteri is wickedly menacing and Schroder exudes a steely naivete. Like Johnny, Brad just loves playing pool even if that means playing dirty. In his final performance, Rod Steiger has several moments which recall why he was once considered one of the great actors of his generation.
It is a fitting curtain call for a distinguished career.
Even though he only has three scenes, Christopher Walken steals the movie as Tara's millionaire uncle who's so rich he doesn't have to pretend to be cool as so many of the other characters must. He just is.
The younger actors who make up Danny's circle are no slouches and play their scenes for some raunchy humour.
Because there's so little original in Poolhall Junkies you may feel as if you've been hustled but it's fun while it lasts.
A down-and-out kid gets picked up by a gambling goombah and taught the ways of being a pool hustler. Fifteen years later, the kid is all growns up but doesn't like his station in life, so he bolts from the nest and tries to make it "legit" on his own. But the "real world" ain't an easy place and when you've got a rich girlfriend, a troubled brother and goofy buddies in tow, pool is pretty much the only solution to all of your problems. Lots of pool cues...ensue.
I wouldn't go as far as to say that this was either a good or bad movie, but if you like pool, enjoy watching hustlers hustle and don't mind sitting through a hackneyed storyline that we've all pretty much seen in one form or another before, POOLHALL JUNKIES, along with a cool l'il performance by Christopher Walken (more like a cameo), might just do it for you. The film is basically the life-long ambition of writer/director/star Mars Callahan, who had enough faith and passion in his project to sustain it for a period of 10 years! Buuuuuuut, at the end of the day, the story is pretty much the same as a number of other flicks including ROUNDERS and THE COLOR OF MONEY, with sub-par acting to boot (it's an "indie" film, after all) and dialogue which despite trying really hard to sound like SWINGERS or Kevin Smith, falls flat on a number of occasions. And why not try to be a little more ambitious in plot? (Step one: drop the entire "black gang" subplot / Step two: drop the whole "rich girlfriend" thing). Having said that, the movie does feature enough amiable characters to keep you interested throughout and even more so if you're a fan of pool. Several games are also played throughout the film, many of which include some very cool shots. The soundtrack is also pretty decent at times and the directing, while obvious and mannered, does the job with a couple of nifty slo-mos, freeze-frames and the sort.
The lead character played by Callahan also had enough of a third dimension for me to care about him by the end, despite the obvious lack of overt charm a la Tom Cruise or Matt Damon (although he does look like an odd cross between Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and John Cusack) It also didn't hurt that the wonderful Christmas Walken showed up every now and again, dropped a few Walken-esque looks our way and upped the film's overall ante. One engrossing scene that you won't want to miss features the great man talking about lions on the Nature Channel...trust me, it's a doozy! As for the rest of the actors, most are not very good. This may have been Rod Steiger's last film role before he passed, but he's just too over-the-top here. Palminteri, on the other hand, is basically sleepwalking through a role that he's been sleepwalking through for years, while Alison Eastwood shouldn't quit her day job as "Clint Eastwood's daughter". The rest of the "friends" in the cast were okay, but some of their chatter also came off as a little too "written" (this ain't DINER or RESERVOIR DOGS, folks). Overall, the film comes across as pretty authentic with some entertaining pool games and a number of small time hustles, but with obvious rough edges most of which are inherent due to its independent nature.
Is Poolhall Junkies, the sophomore directing effort (and the first one seen by anyone other than Jason Priestley) from director/screenwriter (in the case of Poolhall Junkies, actor) Mars Callahan a great movie? No, but it certainly could have been had it not had moments of melodrama that rival sappy, Bennifer chick flicks. In fact, Poolhall Junkies was a few scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor too many of being not merely a film, but a cultural phenomenon a la Swingers and Pulp Fiction. That is just how promising, both the premise (via dialogue) and performances (via Christopher Walken) are. Callahan stars as Johnny Doyle, a gifted amateur pool player on the fast track to being a pro, when the road most traveled by, by way of a Fast Eddie Felson-ish (see The Color of Money) Joe, portrayed with panache by an amusingly abrasive Chazz Palminteri, delays his bright future for a life of the con as a smalltime pool hustler. But with a life of crime not suiting his character, Johnny calls it quits to work in construction. Alas, the dim, smoke-filled poolhalls beckon and Johnny answers the call, along the way, befriending Mike (Walken), a rich man who likes to slap the face of convention and backs Johnny's bet during the game of the young pool shark's life. What sets Poolhall Junkies apart is Callahan's uncanny knack for snappy, witty banter. Like Jon Favreau and Quentin Tarantino (two of the most promising writer/directors of my generation), Callahan knows the human thirst for clever one on ones on the everyday routine. Where Callahan stumbles and so goes Poolhall Junkies is his pandering to the fairer sex or Academy voters by polluting an otherwise original film with cornball, sentimental slush courtesy of his scenes with girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) or one real teeth-grinder with Joe about his lost youth. Poolhall Junkies is saved, not only by Callahan's provocative script, but Walken's flawless performance, vintage Walken, full of style and swagger. Forgiving Callahan's schoolgirlish sentiments, in the end, like a bet, Poolhall Junkies is money. Poolhall Junkies costars Michael Rosenbaum (of Sorority Boys), Rick Schroder (of Silver Spoons), and Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront).The Poolhall Junkies DVD features trailer and commentary.
Once upon a time, a scuffling actor named Sylvester Stallone decided that the key to stardom was to write a screenplay as a perfect vehicle for himself. Since then, untold hundreds or thousands of hopefuls, mistaking Stallone's good luck (and, yes, talent) for some sort of cosmic justice, have confidently tried to follow in his footsteps...often following them right off a cliff to be dashed on the rocks below.
Poolhall Junkies, the sophomore feature from writer-director-actor Mars Callahan (a.k.a. Gregory "Mars" Martin--go figure) goes so far as to pattern itself somewhat on Rocky, with Callahan as Stallone and the late Rod Steiger (visibly unhealthy) as Burgess Meredith. Mix that with Diner and with the inevitable shades of The Hustler--impossible to avoid when making a pool film. The result is by no means the embarrassment that many such offerings from unjustifiably vain actor-auteurs have been, but nor does it present much of anything new or compelling to demand one's attention.
Johnny (Callahan), a top-notch pool player, might have made it as a professional. But he's spent 15 years under the wing of mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri), a slimy manager of hustlers, who considers him his private property. Johnny, fed up with how he's wasted his life so far, breaks off from Joe, which the latter will never forgive.
Part of Johnny's change of direction comes from his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood), a law student with high aspirations. Part of it comes from his guilt at not being around for his little brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum, who really does look like he could be Callahan's brother), a hothead who is in danger of developing into a pool-hall lowlife himself.
Unfortunately, our hero keeps slipping off the no-pool wagon. Having squandered his formative years, the only honest jobs he can find are dull, low-paying, entry-level positions. Despite Tara's disapproval, Johnny can't resist his love for the game, the chance for easy money and the lure of the action, no matter how sleazy it may be.
When Tara takes him to a fancy party, he hustles her boss (Peter Mark Richman), impressing quirky retired millionaire Mike (Christopher Walken). Of course, Tara then tosses him out, and he is furious at his own macho backsliding.
Crises develop, and Johnny has to play once more--this time against Brad (Rick Schroder), Joe's new protege.
Most of the film unfolds from Johnny's point of view--at times, he even narrates in voiceover--but, oddly, Callahan cuts away every now and then to scenes of Danny and his three buddies shooting the sh-- at a local diner. This back-and-forth structure diffuses the story's focus, particularly since the diner scenes feel like they've wandered in from a movie of a different genre--Old High School Pals Trying to Make the Transition to Adulthood While Hanging Around Talking About Sex.
For the most part, the film is technically smooth, although one scene in a pawnshop is badly edited in a way that any second-year film student would know how to avoid. And toward the end, the plot logistics begin to seem a little fishy: Desperate for cash, Johnny plays and loses; at which point more money keeps turning up to keep him in the game--vastly more money, in fact, than he needed in the first place. The characters' motivations follow a kind of tortured logic, but the mechanics still feel awkward.
The movie's strongest virtues are in the performances. As an actor, Callahan has a fairly compelling, brooding presence; he looks like a '50s rock star and emits a James Dean-ish angst. His underplaying is contrasted to Rosenbaum's tense, hyper energy. Palminteri effortlessly portrays a total villain, and Eastwood does the best she can in an underwritten, generic "girlfriend" part.
Every time Walken appears, the film cranks up a notch. Between this, Catch Me If You Can and the Spike Jonze Fatboy Slim video from a year or two ago, the guy is really on a roll. The film's high point is when Walken squares off against Palminteri--you can feel the actors having a blast.
Rating: ** [2 stars out of 4]
It's easy to like Mars Callahan -- the lanky, cocky, writer-director-star of "Poolhall Junkies" -- but the problem is he seems to like himself even more. Narcissism is a necessary trait in a movie star, let alone a star-auteur, but even a narcissist should leave room for other admirers.
Admittedly, without Callahan's lively presence, "Poolhall Junkies" would be little more than a rehash of every other billiards movie ever made. Callahan's Johnny is a talented hustler embroiled in a feud with his former partner (Chazz Palminteri) while his girlfriend (Alison Eastwood) pleads with him to go legit.
Much of "Poolhall Junkies" is painful -- especially the coffee-shop banter of Johnny's buddies -- but it jumps to life whenever Callahan swaggers onto the screen. The scenes he shares with Christopher Walken as an impressively funded gambler especially are electric -- it's the sight of two camera hogs admirably sizing each other up.
There are times when I almost wish I hadn't seen some of the great films. This is one of them.
If I'd never seen the 1961 Paul Newman-Jackie Gleason classic "The Hustler," I might not notice how derivative "Poolhall Junkies" is. I might not be so annoyed at the stereotypical characters. I might be satisfied with the breath of fresh air Christopher Walken provides with lines like "I'm going outside to get some smog" and tired (but still amusing) cheap shots like "What do you call 100 lawyers neck deep in sand? Not enough sand." And I could wax nostalgic about one of Rod Steiger's last roles, as the pawnshop owner who delivers the sophomoric moral of the tale: "You go around thinking you're a loser and pretty soon you'll be one."
But I have seen "The Hustler" and its successor "The Color of Money," and I can't for the life of me understand why "Poolhall Junkies" seemed a good idea.
Writer/director Mars Callahan gives us Johnny Doyle (played by himself), young phenom who dreams of being the world's best professional pool player, who takes a detour into the world of hustling after "hustler manager" Joe (Chazz Palminteri) takes Johnny under his wing.
Does Johnny want to be a hustler or does he want to be legit? You can guess where this plot is going almost before it gets started, but even that might have been tolerable had Callahan given us a reason to care about Johnny or anyone else in the story. Instead, he offers us the obligatory one-dimensional love interest, poor little rich girl Tara (Alison Eastwood), a law student who for no discernible reason gets involved with Johnny, and a script in which it seems every other word is a four-letter one that starts with F.
I guess this is an attempt at Realism, or maybe Grit. This is neither; it's just plain bad writing in a film that shouldn't have been made.
Rating: ** [2 stars out of 4]
At a time when most low-budget indies can't even make it into theaters, "Poolhall Junkies," an oddball labor of love, is getting a fairly broad release.
That's apparently out of the hope that struggling actor Mars Callahan, who stars in his own screenplay (as well as directing it), has somehow turned out another "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
For all his skill with a cue, the charisma-challenged Callahan is no Nia Vardalos in the acting department - let alone a Paul Newman or Tom Cruise.
And Callahan's script is no threat to "The Hustler" or "The Color of Money," both of which it, uh, quotes, while telling a familiar story, albeit with punchy dialogue and colorful characters.
But as a director, Callahan is smart enough to surround himself with seasoned supporting performers - most notably Christopher Walken, who not for the first time, walks off with the picture in a handful of scenes.
The story is set in Salt Lake City, where poolhall hustler Johnny (Callahan) walks away from Joe (a one-note Chazz Palminteri), his mentor of 15 years, after discovering the older man had secretly sabotaged his ambitions to go pro.
With the encouragement of his girlfriend Tara (an awkward Alison Eastwood), Johnny tries the straight life, but he's being threatened constantly by Joe.
Eventually Johnny is maneuvered into a serious money match with Brad (Rick Schroder), Joe's new, gifted protege.
By this point, Johnny has acquired a sponsor in the form of Mike, a pool-loving millionaire lawyer played with enormous panache by Walken.
This gritty little movie is also notable for the final screen appearance of Rod Steiger, who channels a lifetime of experience into his small role as Johnny's avuncular manager.
Less interesting is a subplot involving Johnny's brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) and his pool-bum pals, who form a somewhat tiresome Greek chorus.
This film coulda been a contender if Callahan hadn't worn so many hats - but it has moments that make it worth waiting for on video.
Born with blue chalk in his blood and green felt in his eyes, Johnny (Mars Callahan) could have been a contender as a professional pool player. On his way to the tour, however, he's betrayed by Joe (Chazz Palminteri), a sleazy two-bit backer who leads Johnny down the hustler's road. Fifteen years later, Johnny's shaken Joe, but the bitter episode has sapped his confidence, and he ends up working at the docks. What with Callahan's squinty-eyed struggle to channel On the Waterfront Brando, and numerous scenes of men circling each other with sticks, the opening flashback that establishes this back story drips with male melodrama. But it isn't until Johnny says, "You should have looked out for me, Joe, I was just a kid," that the whole thing starts feeling like a put-on. Co-written (with Chris Corso) and directed by Callahan, Poolhall Junkies aspires to pay structuralist homage -- à la Far From Heaven -- to Body and Soul, Waterfront, The Hustler, et al. At least that's the pleasurable genre exercise that Palminteri, Rod Steiger (as the lovably crusty pool-hall manager) and Christopher Walken (as Johnny's new backer for revenge) deliver whenever they're onscreen. Elsewise Callahan's feature debut is a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 5]
Brassy and energetic, first-time director Mars Callahan's vividly photographed ode to the seductive allure of professional sharking succeeds in making the game seem genuinely kinetic and thrilling. And that's no mean feat, since the game boils down to a bunch of guys (and the occasional gal) standing around a table poking balls with a stick. Johnny (Callahan) has been hanging around pool halls since he was a teenager and could have been a contender, if only his sleazy mentor (Chazz Palminteri) hadn't convinced him to concentrate on hustling chumps. Now in his 30s, Johnny is tired of grifting and worried that his starry-eyed younger brother, Danny (Michael Rosenbaum), is going to follow in his dead-end footsteps. Johnny knows he's living a dangerous, uncertain life, but Danny is dazzled by the sight of his older brother gliding into smoke-filled rooms on a practiced line of patter and slicing suckers' egos to ribbons on the felt. So Johnny packs it in and gets a regular job, to the delight of his straight-arrow girlfriend, Tara (Alison Eastwood), a rich girl proving something to herself by working her way through law school as a paralegal. Unfortunately, Johnny isn't good at construction work or selling campers or much of anything, really, except separating suckers from their money in pool halls. Tara dumps him when he goes back to his old ways, but Johnny finds a friend in her black-sheep Uncle Mike (Christopher Walken), a self-made millionaire who loves the thrill of the score, whether it's a business deal or a game of pool. Johnny's journey of personal redemption was old when Fast Eddie Felsen was a stripling, and many of the film's dramatic scenes are awkward and flat, but the pool sequences are dynamite -- it's no surprise that Callahan is a real-life pool enthusiast who met his co-writer over a game. The film was a 10-year labor of love; in the time it took to produce, Callahan aged out of the role of Danny, which he wrote for himself, and into the flashier role of Johnny. As is his wont, Walken very nearly walks away with the picture -- he deploys freaky non sequiteurs the way Johnny wields a cue -- but the fact that Callahan's performance is one long homage to Walken's distinctive mannerisms (right down the tips of his hair), gives their scenes together a lunatic zing.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4
A lowlife billiards drama that lacks the drive and edginess of the classic The Hustler, Poolhall Junkies does get by on its humor, energy and earnest charm. The filmmaker, Mars Callahan, a confessed poolhall junkie himself, met his co-writer Chris Corso while they were trying to hustle each other at the tables, and the two put together a movie about this particularly determined and obsessive lifestyle.
Callahan casts himself in Poolhall Junkies as Johnny, a talented pool shark who is chained against his will to older, shady retired hustler Joe (Chazz Palminteri), a guy with gangster tendencies who just won't let go of this dependable meal ticket. At the same time, Johnny is romancing an upscale law student (Alison Eastwood), through whom he meets a more supportive kind of father figure, Uncle Mikey (Christopher Walken). Mikey is an obscenely wealthy lawyer, but not too distracted by his fortune to be bitten by the billiards bug too.
Johnny breaks free of Joe, but not before his old mentor breaks Johnny's essential hustling tool--his hand. Joe then adopts a new-jack pool shark, Brad (Rick Schroder). The two young players eventually cross sticks in a climactic duel. The contest is not exactly a breathless one, and holds little momentum or surprise.
Poolhall Junkies gets more points for the lingo, legend and lore behind the game than for any storytelling depth or power. Credit can probably be claimed for the pungent ambience by Callahan and his own firsthand experience of that gritty subculture. But it was decidedly the wrong move to cast himself as the star, since he's continually upstaged by screen heavies like Walken, Palminteri, and Schroder, who looks kind of like a young Steve McQueen. Then there's the sadly underutilized, late, great Rod Steiger in his last appearance as the poolhall proprietor.
Poolhall Junkies does effectively lure us into an unfamiliar world. There's also a dynamic mix of generations of these game fanatics, from old, real-life vets of the indoor sport to young ghetto champs, with a heady accompanying soundtrack drenched in swing, soul and hip-hop. The sound keeps the narrative sustained and flowing where monotony might otherwise take over.
Rating: *** 1/2 [3.5 stars out of 5]
Stars Gregory Mars Martin, Chazz Palminteri, Anson Mount, Christopher Walken, Michael Rosenbaum, Rick Schroder, Richard Portnow, Rod Steiger As dreary as a film set in a squalid pool hall sounds, Poolhall Junkies is one of the more engaging Independent movies of late -- and best of all it's got some tour de force performances from the likes of Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Walken and Rick Schroeder. But the film belongs to newcomer Gregory 'Mars' Martin, a marvel as the film's central character, Johnny Doyle, and a dab hand at penning a compelling, original feature.
Bought up by his trainer Joe (Palminteri) to rob the unknowing of their riches through pool, young Johnny (Martin) finally realises that he's not getting much out of it himself -- and so frees himself from his long-time mentor. But as jealous and frenzied as his former mentor is, Joe seeks revenge on Johnny -- but not directly. Instead, he takes Joe's younger brother, Danny (Rosenbaum) for all he is worth at a pool game -- leaving Johnny with only one choice: face off his old foe in a game of pool to get his brother out of strife.
With some noteworthy pool shots; and some Hustler sized plotting thrown in, Martin's film is quite a watch. It's funny, suspenseful and tense. Martin's great in the film, offered good roles in the future; and he may be one to watch. It's also refreshing to see Christopher Walken playing a good guy for a change, as Mike, a jaded rich man who backs Johnny all the way home. And check out little Ricky Schroeder, as nasty as burnt-leather as the shark of the game, an unconquerable opponent who joins forces with the seedy Joe.
Rack em up
"Poolhall Junkies" doesn't try to disguise the fact it's a 2003 quasi rip-off of "The Hustler." Yet the movie can be somewhat forgiven because the filmmakers had the presence of mind to surround their main character, Johnny (played by writer/director Mars Callahan), with classy actors who can take a minimal plot and a recycled story and create a film that somehow manages to distinguish itself from the ordinary.
What this film seriously lacks in originality it makes up for with a remarkable cast. In one of the film's most memorable moments, Chazz Palminteri and Christopher Walken square off mano a mano in a scene so dripping with hostility that after it's over you realize you've been waiting to see such a performance from Walken for years. It's pure Walken being Walken, taking on some hard-ass (in this case it's Palminteri) in a stand-off that even Mike Tyson would have been smart enough to back away from. Palminteri is no slouch in the 'show me barely contained rage' category and these two exceptional actors carry the film on their very capable backs. And let's not discount the late great Rod Steiger who makes his final appearance on film as Nick, a poolhall manager with a heart of gold and the skills of a homespun Dr. Phil. Though his screen time is limited, Steiger squeezes the very last drop of juice from this character and elevates a minor supporting role into something no one would have visualized from the written pages of the script.
Rick Schroder also makes an appearance as a professional pool player who is living the life our hero Johnny pictured for himself. Schroder is believable though he's kind of lost in the background when either Walken or Palminteri (or even Callahan) enter the picture.
And that leads us to the star of the movie, Mars Callahan. Callahan has that likeable, quirky onscreen quality that evokes the 'underdog' feeling that women love and men don't feel threatened by. His portrayal of Johnny is low-key and effective. Rather than compete with his co-stars, Callahan scores points by flying below the radar and allowing Walken and Palminteri to chew up all the scenery.
The film follows Johnny as he sees his dream of becoming a legitimate professional pool player smashed by the duplicitous Joe (Palminteri), the man he looked upon for guidance and trusted with his career. Joe can't tolerate the idea of his meal ticket leaving him for the professional circuit and instead convinces him he isn't wanted in the big leagues. Flash forward fifteen years and Johnny finally discovers Joe's deceit. Johnny sees the world he believed in crashing down around him, breaks off his lucrative business relationship with Joe, and leaves him and the world of pool hustlers behind to make a go on his own. Walking away from Joe is a very, very bad idea as this guy plays dirty and isn't one to mess with.
Thrown into the real world, Johnny soon discovers he's not cut out for much other than sinking round balls into corner pockets. There's also this side issue involving his younger brother (Michael Rosenbaum) and his gang of friends who need rescuing from Joe after failing to pay up on their gambling debt. Johnny's also involved with a lawyer-in-training (Alison Eastwood) who prefers her boyfriend not be involved in hustling for a living, but who's own professional life unknowingly hangs on Johnny's pool skills. All these issues force his hand and return him to the world of cue sticks and high-stakes bets, setting him up for a final showdown with Joe. Joe's got a new guy to manipulate (Ricky Schroder) and Johnny's now got Mike (Walken) on his side. Things get interesting as the game is on and it becomes a matter of winner take all.
The plot twists are predictable (you can picture the next scene before the actors act it out), the dialogue is at times stilted, and I could have done without the whole romantic storyline between Callahan and Eastwood's characters. In fact, I suggest going for popcorn and bathroom breaks during Eastwood's scenes. The film you wind up watching without those few scenes will be better than the filmmaker's final edited version. I'm not saying this as a knock on Eastwood's acting ability, it's just the storyline really bogs down when it focuses on that relationship.
For a little indie film set in the world of hustling, "Poolhall Junkies" isn't bad. It's not fantastic, either. Its strength comes from the cast overcoming the material, and that's about as much as you can ask for since "Poolhall Junkies" seems to make no apologies for relying on rehashed material.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 5]
Mars Callahan, the quadruple-threat writer-director-producer-star of Poolhall Junkies, is as eager to please as a puppy and, despite his badass greaser get-up, roughly as imposing onscreen. This wannabe hustler wouldn't even be a mid-afternoon snack for Paul Newman's Fast Eddie Felson, or a beernut for Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats. As an actor, the scraggly and swaggering Callahan suggests Vince Vaughn lite, but as a writer and a director, his influences (Martin Scorcese, and maybe David Mamet) are a little more admirable. With a different actor in the lead, his self-consciously derivative film might even have been a worthwhile exercise in posturing -- as is, it's disreputable, occasionally ludicrous and merely kinda fun.
Callahan plays Johnny Doyle, a roughnecked but preternaturally gifted pool shark out to avenge his exploitation at the hands of his guardian and manager, the bulldoggish sleaze Joe (Chazz Palminteri, chewing toothpicks and scenery). There's a plot in Poolhall Junkies, but darned if you'll bother following it -- what matters is that after endless scenes of glowering between mucho macho character actors, Johnny is forced to go one-on-one with a Terminator-like pro played by, of all people, Ricky Schroder. The dialogue is strictly staccato one-liners; the direction functional except when it tries to suggest an overabundance of camera-prowling style. Then it's just tacky, in an exasperatingly likeable sort of way.
There would be nothing else to say, except that, as always, Christopher Walken manages to inject a joy of performance into sequences that might otherwise drift aimlessly. Listening to him trying to psych up Johnny -- whom his left-field, rich-uncle character has luckily decided to bankroll in the climactic tilt -- by describing the behaviour of lions on the Discovery Channel is a genuine cockeyed pleasure. And watch Callahan watching Walken: he's so tickled to be in a movie with one of his idols that he can't stop the smile at the corners of his sullen little mouth.