Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
Can a whiz at pool rise above his loser, hustling past, or will he sink like a cue ball?
Johnny Doyle (the enviably named Mars Callahan, who also wrote and directed) is a pool-playing wunderkind who, as his shady mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri) puts it, makes an art out of the hustle not just by conning his victims but making them like it. Johnny's getting tired of the sharking game, and his law-student girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) is putting the press on him to get legit--or get out. When he finds out double-crossing Joe screwed him out of a chance to join the professionals 15 years ago so they could remain hustling partners, Johnny dumps Joe in a violent confrontation and tries (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to go straight despite his love of the game, the respect he gets from his younger brother and his friends, and of course, the astounding amount of money he can win. Plus, Tara's millionaire uncle Mike (Christopher Walken) can run the table pretty well himself, and he's taken a liking to rebel Johnny. Meanwhile, Joe, vowing to settle the score, has taken on top-ranked pro Brad (Rick Schroder) as his new protege to help him do just that.
Callahan looks a lot like Walken, by default or by design--his hair, expressions, mannerisms could make him Walken's son--but the similarity ends there. Callahan's no weighty actor, but his easy delivery and quippy one-liners balance the heft brought in by Walken (who steals the entire shebang with a few choice scenes) and Palminteri (who, with his malevolent scowl and loathsome behavior, chews up and spits out the scenery as if tasting a spoiled bar burger). Wan and vapid, token chick Eastwood has zero presence on-screen and even less chemistry with Callahan. The scenes involving Johnny's young, wannabe-grifter brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) and his pals are a hoot, but many are unnecessary. Schroder has maybe two lines and gives a good butt-whuppin', but he mostly just does a lot of lip mashing to show his frustration, satisfaction, confusion...
How newbie director Callahan convinced this exceptional group (in addition to Palminteri and Walken, Rod Steiger appears in his final role as an aged, streetwise poolhall owner with an old saw for every unfortunate situation) to sign on is anyone's guess--this ain't no Paul Newman pool movie, and everyone knows it. Thankfully Callahan's cast is skilled enough to rise above its corny diatribes and some stiff dialogue, and the script does have some very funny lines and scenes that give the cast something to work with. However, at a breezy 90-some minutes, the movie could done away with a few of the scenes in favor of more character development and back story. Way too much time is wasted on a long party scene in which one of Johnny's young buddies tries to get laid, more still on his brother's band's performance at some club and even more on the parts with Tara's bitchy friend--yet we never really find out what drives Joe to be such a jerk or why Johnny is such a loser, other than a few lines about his neglectful parents.
You can see what's coming a mile away, so it's not if people are going to be conned, but how--and that, in addition to every scene Christopher Walken is in, is what's fun about this movie.
SBD Star Rating: ** [2 stars out of 5]
ReviewScore: 37 out of 100 [apparently a compilation of scores from prominant national reviews]
The indie film Poolhall Junkies is being treated as not-so-serious junk by the critics. "The first funny-awful movie of 2003," is the way Jan Stuart in Newsday describes it. "A grind to sit through," is Jack Mathews' description in the New York Daily News. Robert K. Elder in the Chicago Tribune dismisses it as 90 "minutes of timeworn plot conceits and subpar dialogue." Comments Manohla Dargis in the Los Angeles Times: "It isn't that nothing happens in Poolhall Junkies, it's that nothing interesting does." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times closes his review with a summarizing series of questions and answers: "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."
I love walking into a theater with moderate level buzz for a film with a title that has a promise.
POOLHALL JUNKIES was the title with the promise of greatness this time out. Before I ever came to the fest the title leapt out at me and said, "Watch me! Watch Me!" So, being the good geek that I was, I called it up on IMDB and found that it had Christopher Walken, Rod Steiger and Chazz Palminteri. Well that sounds great. Then I noticed that it seemed to star some guy named Mars Callahan, who also seemed to have written and directed the film. It also had that Lex Luthor guy from SMALLVILLE (Michael Rosenbaum) along with little Ricky Stratton all grown up... um, I mean Rick Schroder.
Who was this Mars Callahan?
Well he had made a little movie called ZIGS that I had never heard of... This went from a must see to a... Could suck real bad feeling.
Around Day 3 of the festival while I was throwing back free Crown & Cokes, Apple Martinis, Cosmopolitans and Tequila Shots with Jeffrey Wells of Reel.Com fame. Jeff had seen POOLHALL JUNKIES and liked what he saw. Looking at the schedule, I decided to see it this past Thursday.
Thursday morning comes and I get a phone call telling me that I have to do my Film Jury Duty with Emmanuel Levy and Anne Thompson at 11:30am - "Good," I think... I'll do Jury Deliberations and then go straight into POOLHALL JUNKIES. A couple of hours go by and I suddenly get the message that, Emmanuel Levy has been delayed in Los Angeles and that we would not all be getting together for Jury Stuff till 5:30pm... Suddenly I find myself unable to join Quint, the lovely Auntie Meat and the rest of the festival attendees at the screening. I figure, "This is the price you pay for a week of free partying and wildness in Vegas!" It was also the first time I was certain that I would be missing a great movie. You see, if the movie gods force me by hook or by crook to miss a movie that I was fully intending to attend, then those same Movie Gods are going to be setting me up to miss a great friggin movie! Without fail!
Imagine my delight when on the last day of the festival, if by a miracle, the T.B.A. at 4p.m. was filled with a note saying POOLHALL JUNKIES! Yippee!!!! Praise the Programmers!!! Trevor and Mike Rule!!!
4 p.m. approaches as I've lost untold riches on the number 1 on the roulette wheel. I thought if I be an even grand every hour on the hour on the number 1 that I'd win, but I tried this every day for 8 days and it didn't work. Moriarty lied to me. [Expletive].
Ok, so I break my penniless ass away from the pit of hell, and settle into my seat for POOLHALL JUNKIES. Elliot Gould wound up attending (God he ruled in CALIFORNIA SPLIT earlier in the fest), as did famed ex-Variety scribe Emmanuel Levy.
The film starts to a mostly filled auditorium.
This is a [expletive] cool movie!
This is a film with a beating pulse that stays in tune with your own... A movie that just oozes cool throughout. You are probably familiar with the genre... Films like SWINGERS and MADE...
When you see names like Walken, Steiger and Palminteri... that doesn't guarantee a good film. They can be great in great films, but they can also be great in terrible films. We've seen that way too many times. When you see their names in a movie though, this is the film you are hoping to get. A movie that makes you feel cooler for breathing in the presence of.
All 3 of these guys spout monologues that are just gold. Not one, not even two, but several. The scenes that these scene-stealers love to breakaway into bites that you chew up again and again.
However, the movie features Rick Schroder in a damn fine role. And introduces Mars Callahan as an honest to goodness star, not only on screen, but off screen.
Ok, ok, enough of the praise praise, what makes this so good right?
From the opening loving montage of pool ephemera to the closing shots of the film, this movie is one of the best pool hustling movies out there. It isn't going for the dramatic pit of hell that Paul Newman's Fast Eddie Felson found himself in the phenomenally great THE HUSTLER... Nor is it as slick as Scorsese's outing with Eddie in THE COLOR OF MONEY. However, I prefer this film to Scorsese's COLOR OF MONEY, and really... The two best pool movies ever shot had Fast Eddie Felson as a character, until now.
POOLHALL JUNKIES pulls up right behind THE HUSTLER, and only doesn't pass that one simply because the pure dramatics and seedy desperation of Paul Newman, the sleaze of George C Scott and the unforgettable beauty of that fatman Jackie Gleason... well, they are iconic beyond words.
But what about POOLHALL JUNKIES? What makes it so good right? I keep skirting the issue. But let's break it down.
The opening montage follows and pours over the instruments of pool like the items in Jem Finch's box from the opening of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Soon we find ourselves in a dark pool hall with a scrap of a kid playing a pool hustler as Chazz looks on. The kid is spouting off about the big national pool tournament having scouted him and how even though they had filled all 50 spots, they would be making an exception to let him in to the tournament. This young man is saying how he isn't going to be a pool hustler, but a professional player, because... he never misses. Chazz tells the boy to not play with this man, because he's a hustler... and the only thing you can learn from a hustler is how to lose. Of course it's all handled better than my pathetic description... it feels momentous, like an origin sequence, and at the end we see Chazz drop the boys invite into a trash can as he plays the hustler...
CUT TO 15 years later...
We see Mars playing pool with a man that apparently is part of drug gang headed by Glenn Plummer (SHOWGIRLS infamy). He's been beating this man all night long and has been making Glenn like it. With his charm and presence he doesn't make you hate him for beating you, but makes you love to see him play. When Chazz takes Mars aside to tell him to step up the hustle, make this opportunity pay off we see a different Mars. Mars' Johnny Doyle is every bit as adept at the 'hustle' as he is at the game of pool. Now, I'm not going to tell you what happens from here on out, simply because watching this movie unfold... hearing the dialogue coming from these guys and watching how it all plays out is simply a blast.
You will see a scene that is a showdown of balls between Walken and Palminteri, and it is a [expletive] great moment. The type that makes you just glad to physically exist to enjoy a film like this. The film engages you throughout, somehow developing each of these characters, even making you feel like you know them as more than just paper thin stereotypes and cliches... which they are not.
The way they shoot the game of pool, the music that they cut to, the dialogue snapping off the screen and dancing in your head, it all weaves together to make a movie that just intoxicates.
There's this one scene between Walken and Callahan towards the end of the movie... its one of those scenes you carry with you for the rest of your life when you've seen it... one of those perfect Christopher Walken monologues like only he can deliver. It is an inspirational speech that starts with, "Have you ever watched one of those animal channels?" if memory serves... The following 'life lesson' from the animal kingdom is so [expletive] rich, so great, so wonderful, that the audience I saw it with was cheering throughout the delivery... acknowledging that this was a great moment from the very second to second that it was being given to us. When the speech was over... the camera follows Walken out of the john, the audience cheering at a great moment delivered by a great actor... But the punchline... the coup d'grace was to fall upon the young Mars Martin. If when the camera showed us his face, he wasn't a changed man from that speech... if his balls hadn't just dropped... if he couldn't beat Apollo [expletive] Creed in a footrace on a beach somewhere outside of Los Angeles.. if couldn't risen up with the will to survive... well then... Well then every word Walken said would have the impact of that [expletive] CG monkey in LOST IN SPACE!
The camera turns onto Mars Callahan's face and [EXPLETIVE] A! The audience roars with approval. This is it. This is that moment, that shot, where the actor you are looking at has just stepped out of anonymity into stardom. This is that moment in the montages of his career later in life, where you point and say... POOLHALL JUNKIES WAS THE GODDAMN BOMB OF POOL MOVIES!
This is a movie about knowing who you are, about being that person no matter what the world may ask of you. It is a film about the love of that chalk on your hands and the feel of that felt beneath your fingers and the sound of those stones crashing together and that rush upon the rack lifting off. This is a movie about pool. The games on, off and beside the tables.
This is also a movie that apparently every shortsighted studio in Hollywood passed on. WHAT ON EARTH ARE THEY THINKING?
I'm convinced Miramax is dead. They can no longer spot gold in dem dar hills. Go back to the early nineties when Miramax found jewels like this and built a crown and a dynasty of cool about them.
The major studios... I understand why they passed... I mean, by god, studios are not about finding talent and cultivating them into stars... studios have become about proven bank ability. They don't really scout talent anymore, until it wins the Kentucky Derby.
With POOLHALL JUNKIES this is an easy damn sell. After the film, Mars Callahan came out and charmed the living bejeesus out of the audience... the sort of charm that folks would eat up on Letterman or Leno, if you pushed him. He did his impressions of Walken and the other cast members to the great delight of the audience. This is a commercial film. You cut a trailer to Walken's bathroom speech and you have a film that will play strong.
And the great thing is... the movie has a helluva lot more to offer than just that speech. If a movie like this slips through the system, then give up hopes of finding future talent in independent cinema. It seems the used-to-be INDIE Distributors are doing nothing but looking for Oscarbating material only. They've forgotten how to sell quality entertainment made for cheap. They no longer want to find gold, they just want dilute the gold they have in hand by cutting it with non-precious materials over the years till it is devalued to nothing more than trinket materials. They cut their coke to such a degree it gets you as high as a double dose of Ex-Lax.
If POOLHALL JUNKIES plays your festival... DON'T MISS IT! You'll be seeing more from Mars Callahan, I guarantee it. This is a major new talent in front of and behind the screens.
Film Rating: B
DVD Special Features: B-
I don't know about you, but films about the game of pool have never really interested me. How many blockbusters about it can you recall? Now, I'm not one of those idiots who believes that a film has to be a blockbuster before I'll look at it. Quite the contrary, actually, only I still can't think of many independents about it either. Fortunately, while the idea of a film about pool may not excite you, the cast for this one ought to. It's because of them that when I started watching "Poolhall Junkies", I couldn't look away until the credits started to roll.
Johnny Doyle (Gregory Martin, "Kalifornia") had a lousy home life and upbringing, so pool hustler Joe (Chazz Palminteri, "The Usual Suspects") took it upon himself to raise the kid in order to make himself some easy money teaching the trade. Unfortunately for him, Johnny is good... too good. Fearing the boy will one day leave him behind, Joe does his best to hold him back, only Johnny decides to revolt. Now, years later, Johnny is dating rich girl Tara (Alison Eastwood, "Friends and Lovers") and trying to walk a fine line between getting a legitimate job and making money playing pool. He likes the game, she wants him to give it up. Hmm... the best way to make a woman happy is to obey.
Life is good for a while, but when Joe shows up again with his latest protege, Brad (Rick Schroder, "NYPD Blue"), he (Joe) is looking for a little something beyond simple revenge. Not wanting Johnny to have to deal with Joe again, younger brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum, "Smallville") challenges Brad to a couple friendly games. Bad idea. With Danny now owing Joe a huge sum of money, it's up to Johnny to come out of semi-retirement and make things right. Sound complicated? It isn't really and it plays much better on the screen than it sounds.
What really makes "Poolhall Junkies" work is the ensemble cast right down to the smaller roles. Not only does the film feature the late great Rod Steiger, but it also boasts the wonderful Christopher Walken. I could watch Walken deliver a speech at an insurance seminar and be mesmerized. Even Ernie Reyes Jr. pops up for a rare film appearance. The acting is very strong here, the plot always moves forward and it looks like everybody was having a ball despite budgetary constraints.
HBO has released "Poolhall Junkies" in an usual looking Widescreen transfer. While the picture is fairly sharp, there is grain visible throughout. Oddly enough, it doesn't really hurt the production at all and actually gives it an appropriate gritty feel. As for extras, they are kept to a minimum with just a couple of trailers, some cast and crew bios and an audio commentary with Actor/Director Gregory Martin and co-writer Chris Corso. As commentaries go, these guys have a huge appreciation for the film and do relate plenty of anecdotes, but they also tend to get a bit lost in that same appreciation.
This isn't something I would have picked up had I seen it on the shelf in the local Lackluster Video. Films about pool just don't have any draw for me, but I can say that had I actually looked at who was in it, I would more than likely have given it a shot. If you're looking for something a bit off the beaten path of typical Hollywood films, "Poolhall Junkies" is definitely worth checking out.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
"Poolhall Junkies" is to Mars Callahan what "Rocky" was to Sylvester Stallone, but more a bunt single than a home run.
Callahan, who also goes by the names Gregory "Mars" Martin and Gregory "Mars" Callahan, co-wrote it (with Chris Corso) as a vehicle for himself. He took fifth billing despite having the only starring role. He even directed it.
But considering that the high-toned talent aboard includes Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Walken and the late and very formidable Rod Steiger, wouldn't you think someone would say, "Kid, what you've got here shows promise, but you need to cut the hackneyed parts and sharpen its strengths"?
"Poolhall Junkies" is the kind of movie that, when someone says, "I am not having a party," cuts to the party. And when someone says, "You are never going to pawn my car," cuts to the pawning of the car.
It isn't just that such moments are intended to be funny and aren't; you could line Interstate 80 with that gag's use in movies and TV shows. Anyone making any movie should have seen at least 2,000 of the best and ideally 5,000.
Callahan unquestionably knows his pool, but in using pool hustling as a milieu, he wanders onto turf owned by "The Hustler" (1961).
The latter is marvelously gritty and magnificently detailed in character, plot development and observation -- one of the great ambient movies of all time.
"Poolhall Junkies" is a young independent filmmaker's variant, told with the incomparably lower narrative standards of the new century and with little of the adult panache.
Shot in 2000, it does have a pool insider's know-how and his urge to establish himself as a filmmaker by using an environment with which he's familiar.
He begins with a promising narrative: "The pool hall is a great equalizer. ... It's about how you move. ... He thought he could never miss. I know. That kid was me."
And then we meet him, a teen named Johnny Doyle (Callahan), who was being tutored in pool hustling 15 years ago by the intimidating, oil-slick Joe (Palminteri).
Johnny thought he could polish his act and move up in class to the pros. Joe, who wanted a permanent meal ticket, intercepted the pro invitations and chucked them.
The story picks up in the present, with Johnny inevitably learning the truth ("After 15 years, the only thing I got to be was the best hustler") and squaring off against Joe's new player, Brad (Rick Schroder).
The seams show in the mechanics as they usually do in myths about underdogs.
Not much is mined in Johnny's relationship with slacker younger brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) or Johnny's romance with the law student Tara (Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter). Callahan doesn't tap the frisson in the unpersuasive mismatch.
And he doesn't know how to portray the dichotomy he intends -- that Johnny has a lot to offer but lacks the discipline to hold his day job as a construction carpenter. Most of us sympathize with actors who wait tables and negotiate time off for auditions but little for lazy dreamers who don't push themselves in practical ways.
Neither did Callahan do enough to build up the role of Nick, the seasoned pool hall manager, once he cast Steiger in the part. Why hire lightning and then consign him to play a pocket flashlight? In little more than a cameo role's time, Nick becomes more interesting than Johnny.
The real charge is provided by Palminteri and by Walken, who plays Tara's wealthy uncle and Johnny's new benefactor.
Filling out slightly written parts with finesse to spare, they're like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly wandering into a school dance, watching the kids flail gracelessly for a few minutes and then sauntering onto the floor for an effortless soft shoe.
Everything involving them puts fresh chalk on "Poolhall Junkie's" cues.
"The pool hall is a great equalizer. In the pool hall nobody cares about how old you are, how young you are, what color your skin is, or how much money you got in your pocket. It's about how you move."
- Johnny (Mars Callahan)
Review By: Brian Calhoun
Published: November 12, 2003
Stars: Mars Callahan, Chazz Palminteri, Alison Eastwood
Other Stars: Michael Rosenbaum, Rick Schroder, Rod Steiger, Christopher Walken
Director: Mars Callahan
Manufacturer: Ascent Media
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Run Time: 01h:34m:14s
Release Date: August 26, 2003
|Aspect Ratio||1.85:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
|DS 2.0||English, Spanish||yes|
It's not often a movie about pool hustlers prompts fond memories of my Girl Scout days.
But "Poolhall Junkies" -- returning to Las Vegas after its world premiere last June at the CineVegas International Film Festival -- turns out to be the exception.
More specifically, "Poolhall Junkies" brings to mind the lyrics of an old Scout song: "Make new friends, but keep the old -- one is silver and the other's gold."
The old, gold friends, in this case, include Christopher Walken, Chazz Palminteri and, in one of his final screen appearances, the late Rod Steiger.
Chief among the new friends: Mars Callahan (previously billed as Gregory and/or "Mars" Martin), "Poolhall Junkies' " director, co-writer and star, who proves yet again that it doesn't take a big budget to create satisfying cinematic entertainment.
Much of "Poolhall Junkies" takes place in scummy pool halls and other unprepossessing Salt Lake City locations. It doesn't exactly overflow with subtlety or refinement.
But who wants subtlety or refinement in a movie about pool?
You want colorful characters spouting drop-dead dialogue. You want impossible shots and balls zooming across the table as if they'd just made the jump into hyperspace. You want an elemental battle between good and evil where the good guys aren't all that good but the bad guys are pretty damn nasty.
If you're looking for metaphorical meditations on losing and living, falls from grace and other existential epiphanies, stick with "The Hustler" -- and, to a lesser extent, its 25-years-later sequel, "The Color of Money."
If you'd rather reflect on some familiar but can't-miss shots, ably played, "Poolhall Junkies" is more your game. Plenty of it will seem familiar, but that doesn't make it any less diverting.
The movie centers on the (mis)adventures of pool phenom Johnny Doyle (Callahan), who seems destined for professional glory in big-money tournaments. That is, until his slimy mentor Joe (Palminteri) decides there's more money to be made by using Johnny to separate unsuspecting players from their cash.
Eventually, however, Johnny tires of hustling the hapless targets Joe finds for him. Especially with his law student girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood, who has her father Clint's good looks, if not his charisma) threatening to leave him if he doesn't give up gambling -- and his younger brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum, alias the youthful Lex Luthor on TV's "Smallville") showing distressing signs of following his big brother down a dangerous path.
Control-freak Joe, however, isn't the type to offer a champagne toast and a farewell banquet to anyone who manages to escape his clutches.
He's also not the type to take his quest for vengeance directly to the enemy.
That explains why he goes after Danny instead -- forcing Johnny to ride to his brother's rescue.
Also on hand for the inevitable showdown: Brad (an effectively intense Rick Schroder), an icy-eyed shark who's Joe's latest protege Nick (Steiger), the seen-it-all proprietor of Johnny's favorite pool hall, the aptly named Hardtimes; and, most importantly, Tara's wily Uncle Mike (Walken), a lawyer with deep pockets and an even deeper understanding of what it takes to run the table.
Scripted by Callahan and Chris Corso, "Poolhall Junkies" patrols familiar territory with macho finesse, layering characters and relationships in crafty fashion.
With its behind-the-scenes exploration of a ritualistic, competitive world, "Poolhall Junkies" conjures some of the tangy atmosphere of the poker drama "Rounders." And with its portrait of a one-time phenom determined to do things his way, you can sense echoes of movies as different as "Good Will Hunting" and "Rocky."
The movie's tart tough-guy dialogue, however, puts "Poolhall Junkies" into its own league. And while Callahan, with director of photography Robert Morris' able assistance, displays an arresting sense of visual detail -- especially when those rocket-powered pool balls zoom across the green felt galaxy -- it's the vivid performances that keep the movie moving.
Among the relative newcomers, Rosenbaum's edgy energy stands out among the Greek chorus of Johnny's poolhall pals. And Callahan's brash, loose-limbed presence belies Johnny's cunning hustler instincts. (But at least he can back it up: he's a terror with a cue in his hands.)
For movie junkies, however, "Poolhall Junkies" provides a welcome chance to marvel at -- and revel in -- the peak-form performances of some old friends indeed.
Hovering in the background for most of the movie, Steiger conjures memories of his illustrious cinematic past in fleeting but telling moments, especially when he delivers get-real words of wisdom ("If you play with bums, you become a bum") to a hero wondering whether he's got the intestinal fortitude to be one.
And while we've seen Palminteri's coiled-spring menace numerous times, "Poolhall Junkies" allows him to present it in raw, to-the-bone form.
It also allows him to face off against the irresistible Walken, who has an unabashed blast as Johnny's nick-of-time benefactor.
Whether he's tossing off a nimble quip ("I'm gonna step outside and get some smog") or coolly stepping up in the movie's clash-of-the-titans climax, Walken (a current Oscar-nominee for "Catch Me if You Can") not only chews the scenery but savors every bite.
It's a tasty performance that enables those of us in the audience to share in the delicious fun.
Or, to phrase it in a way these "Poolhall Junkies" would understand: rack 'em up.
Rating: 5 out of 10 stars
Gold Circle Films gathers a nice ensemble of lead male actors for this otherwise predictable story about a young pool player. Power-player ensemble aside, this independent can't get past its weak writing and stagy direction.
Johnny (Mars Callahan), a young natural born billiard player, is invited into the league championship tournament. However, his mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri) hides the invites, turning his protege into a pool hall hustler. Fifteen years later, Johnny finds out Joe threw the invites away and in the middle of a large bet turns the tables on Joe, ultimately walking away from Joe and the game.
In charge of his own life and staying away from the pool hall that his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) dislikes, Johnny begins a life of dismal manual labor. However, while at a family party, Johnny befriends one of Tara's family friends Mike (Christopher Walken), and small talk leads them to the upstairs private pool parlor of her uncle, and on to a few games of pool. Soon, Johnny is pulling a quick hustle on Tara's uncle. If Johnny can make a difficult shot that Mike made, Tara gets one of her uncle's select law firm positions. Unfortunately, when Tara finds out Johnny has hustled her uncle, she leaves him before he can explain what the bet entailed.
For the love of a good woman, Johnny returns to manual labor. In the meantime, his younger brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) and his group of friends (Phillip Glass and Anson Mount), become hot pool hall hustlers. However, Joe reemerges with a new protege Brad (Rick Schroder). With revenge for Johnny on his mind, Danny ends up being hustled by Brad. Instead of turning to Johnny for the money, Danny robs the local pawnshop only to get caught and thrown in jail. When Johnny finds out that Joe is behind his brother's sentence, he returns to the game of pool for one last showdown against Brad and Joe.
Unfortunately, director, writer, and star Mars Callahan falls short in this endeavor. Be it the stagnate writing, the poor fight scenes, the stagy direction or the weak intertwining of melodrama and rapid time lapse editing, the film just can't settle. In addition, it's one thing to travel around the county and hustle unknown pool players, however, the main characters continue to hustle the same group of people over and over again. A more experienced director, and one who is not also the lead actor and co-writer, may have been able to save this film. However, Callahan wears too many hats and the film suffers.
What Callahan should have done was expanded on the physical similarities between Walken and himself (it's amazing how much they look alike) and intertwined that factor into the story. Maybe, just maybe, this additional element might have stirred some overall enthusiasm.
One can only imagine the favors that Callahan called upon to get Walken, Palminteri, and Schroder. At least, there is a decent (though at times loud) sound track.
You know a movie is bad when its publicity machine attributes positive quotes about it from not so well known and sometimes unknown sources. So it is with a little trepidation that when I looked at the front DVD cover of the movie "Poolhall Junkies" that I notice a quote from of all people, Larry King. Yes, the oft-married CNN interviewer makes his debut as a movie critic! What could this mean? Aren't there any reputable movie reviewers out there able to give any positive feedback? King is quoted as saying, "Walken and Palminteri are dynamite!" I wish he would tell us something we don't know already! Let's check our facts here. With a strong cast that consists of heavyweight actors like Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Walken and Rod Steiger, how can any movie ever go wrong? Well, in "Poolhall Junkies", very little is wrong in terms of acting but very much is when it comes to the story.
First, the story brings nothing new to the table, so to speak. The words "hustler" and "pool" go so well together, many movies that feature one, simply do not exist without the other. A familiar tale of a down-on-his-luck pool hustler coming back against great odds to protect a family member and at the same time, fulfill his dreams, is so cliche and overdone, Paul Newman must be smirking at this latest tired endeavor by Mars Callahan. Newman, if you remember, practically wrote the book on portraying pool hustlers, first with his role as 'Fast Eddie' Felson in 1961's "The Hustler" and later, reprising the same role in 1986's "The Color of Money" with Tom Cruise.
Together with Chris Corso, Mars Callahan co-wrote the script for this movie years ago but was unable to find any financial backing to get it made. A story later emerged about them getting the idea for the script after they tried to hustle each other at pool (Corso and Callahan wouldn't reveal who won). When they wrote it, Callahan slated himself to star in the role of the younger brother, Danny Doyle. However, after so many years, Callahan is now old enough to grab the lead role of Johnny Doyle aka Side-Pocket Kid. In this movie, Callahan has the distinction of writing the script, directing the movie and also starring as the lead actor.
Johnny Doyle (Mars Callahan) has always been a phenom in the game of pool. So good in fact that he was invited to join a prestigious professional league when he was only a teenager. However, unbeknownst to him, Johnny's mentor/backer Joe (Chazz Palminteri) sees Johnny's future differently. Joe is the local thug that deems himself smooth enough to know everything there is to know about hustling pool, taking Johnny under his wing since he was abandoned by his parents years ago. Instead of encouraging him to pursue his dreams, the manipulative Joe uses Johnny to make money for him by hustling in dinky pool halls. Not wanting to lose his cash cow, Joe secretly destroys the many invitation cards sent by the pro league that comes Johnny's way, leaving him discouraged about his future. As the movie fast forwards fifteen years later, we still see Johnny, older but none the wiser, hustling pool for pittance with Joe close by his side. A chance meeting with a member of the pro league reveals the true nature of Joe's manipulative ways to Johnny. Leaving Joe in a lurch and in debt with a gangster named Chico (Glenn Plummer), Johnny decides to turn his life around and find another line of work outside the pool halls.
At home, Johnny lives with his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood), a beautiful law student who doesn't approve of his pool hustling. A chance meeting with Tara's Uncle Mike (Christopher Walken) at a dinner party proves useful later on when Johnny's little brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) foolishly falls into a trap set by Joe and his latest protege, Brad (Rick Schroder). Danny worships his brother and is eager to follow in his footsteps to become a great pool player. Johnny tries to discourage him but you can smell trouble coming from a mile away. A showdown is now set for Johnny to redeem himself and at the same time, get Danny out of trouble.
Johnny has never wanted the life of a pool hustler, preferring to play the game that he loves legitimately. As we are reminded time and again throughout the movie, for Johnny, it's not about the money but about the excitement of making the shot. So what we have here is a lovable hustler with a heart of gold that has never had the courage to take the chance to find out if he is as good in the game of pool as many say he is. Rest assured, by the end of this movie, Johnny would take the final step towards his dream, bail his brother out of trouble, win back his girlfriend and teach Joe a painful lesson in hustling. As you can see, predictability is unfortunately this movie's biggest weakness. Call it corny or even cliched, as "Poolhall Junkies" makes no effort to surprise us. However, I must give kudos to Callahan and Corso for the great dialogue featured in the movie. One of the best exchanges of dialogue in the movie comes early between Johnny and Chico, bantering about the correct pronunciation and usage of the word "nigga". A hilarious exchange indeed.
With a weak plot, "Poolhall Junkies" is one movie that is fortunately saved from mediocrity by its cast. On the strength of Palminteri's and Walken's superb performances alone, "Poolhall Junkies" will give most of you the real reason to watch it. Both of these actors give such a commanding performance that they demand our rapt attention whenever they step onto the screen. Look out for the powerful confrontation between these two as they try to psyche each other out with vigor at the pool table. Unfortunately, another strong actor, Rod Steiger, who plays pool parlor owner Nick, is left with only a weak role that does not play to his strengths. The same goes with former child star, Rick Schroder, who barely gets any meaningful lines of dialogue. The rest of the cast contributes well to the movie but they pale in comparison to the looming shadow of Palminteri and Walken.
Another star of this movie is perhaps the most obvious. What is a movie about pool hustlers to do without the usual array of amazing trick shots that will take your breath away? I was inspired and actually went out to shoot a couple of racks after watching this movie. It's a shame that inspiration alone does nothing to improve one's skill level!
Like most new movie productions nowadays, the video presentation of "Poolhall Junkies" is great to watch. Presented in anamorphic video and framed at 1.85:1, the colors are well defined and look natural without any saturation. Subtitle options are available in English, French and Spanish.
Audio options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0 plus Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0. Opting for the 5.1 audio mix, not much activity can be detected from the surround channels because of the nature of the movie itself. As with most dramatic movies, "Poolhall Junkies" is dialogue-driven, which in this case, is clear and precise.
A little thin in the DVD extras section, the only meaningful feature is an audio commentary with Mars Callahan and Chris Corso. As you can almost certainly deduce from their delivery style, this is probably the first audio commentary for both men. There are uncomfortable pauses in between but they do get into some of the interesting aspects of making this movie. Also included in this section are cast and crew bios and the theatrical trailer for this movie.
Sports movies are a funny breed. Mostly catering to fans of the sport itself, they seldom rise above a set storyline: hero is down on his luck, meets a girl of his dreams who inspire him to greater heights, connects with an older and more experienced mentor who goes back to teaching our hero the basics, hero comes back and beats the pants out of the nasty bad guys and yada, yada, yada. You get the picture. Unfortunately "Poolhall Junkies" fall into the same category but it does not make any apologies for it. Rather, it embraces its predictable plot with great acting performances from a bunch of great actors. Larry King is dead-on when he said, "Walken and Palminteri are dynamite!" If only I can say the same about the predictable story.
Hock Guan Teh rates this DVD as follows:
Video: 8 [out of 10]
Film value: 7
Scales of Justice
Being hooked on the game could cost you your life.
Director/Star/Co-Writer Gregory Martin (Zigs) has so many aliases you almost need his rap sheet to keep them all straight. At various points in his career, he has gone by his real name, the nickname "Mars" Martin, or, as he is billed for this film, "Mars Callahan." So, Callahan it is. His second feature film is a semi-autobiographical tale of greed, deceit, and shooting stick.
Facts of the Case
Johnny Doyle (Callahan) is one of the best pool hustlers in the game. He dreams of turning pro someday, but Joe (Chazz Palminteri), the man who developed Johnny's young talent, sabotages him. Years later, after learning of his mentor's betrayal, Johnny hangs up his cue for good. Facing pressure from his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood), he does his best to get a straight job, but the lure of green felt and blue chalk is just too strong.
When Johnny's little brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) turns his back on a promising music career to take on Joe's new hustler Brad (Rick Schroder), he winds up deep in debt and in trouble with the law. It's up to Johnny, backed by Tara's uncle Mike (Christopher Walken), to face Brad and Joe, and put things right.
Callahan and his co-writer Chris Corso wrote Poolhall Junkies based on their shared experiences as small-time pool hustlers. Callahan refers to himself as a "child of Hollywood" and talks about the times he spent hustling money from his wealthier classmates at Beverly Hills High School. Many of the hustles and scams in the film are taken directly from his own poolhall adventures.
For only his second outing as a director, Callahan assembled one of the finest big-name casts ever to appear in an independent film, including Chazz Palminteri, Rod Steiger, Rick Schroder, Alison Eastwood, and the inimitable Christopher Walken. This is true acting power, and the characters they create are a main source of the film's life and energy. The real fun begins once Callahan gets Palminteri and Walken on the screen at the same time, letting these two modern legends tear into each other. Walken is responsible for some of the greatest moments in the whole movie, including a rousing speech to Callahan's character late in the film, referencing nature documentaries from the Discovery Channel. In anyone else's hands, the speech would be bizarre, even surreal, but when Walken sinks his teeth in, it becomes something worthy of Burgess Meredith. It bears mentioning that Poolhall Junkies was the last film appearance for screen legend Rod Steiger. Steiger plays Nick, an aging and streetwise pool hall owner who serves as a voice of wisdom and experience for Johnny.
Standing amongst all of these established and respected actors is our hero, played by Mars Callahan. Callahan has the luxury of playing an idealized version of himself, and the results are entertaining. He makes Johnny the smoothest, cockiest, coolest operator ever to pick up a cue. He's great fun to watch, and can be forgiven if once in a while the character is a little too quick or a little too glib to ring true.
The other real source of life in this film is the direction and shot selection by Callahan. Poolhall Junkies is shot and packaged in a slick style that fits well with a movie about pool halls and hustlers. Especially impressive are the pool games, which are essential to the film. Callahan was adamant that the pool action be filmed in wide shots and long takes to show that the actors were really making the shots. It reminds me of how dance numbers used to be filmed in old MGM musicals, or how well-done swordfight scenes were shot by directors like Curtiz or Kurosawa, allowing the real skill of the actors on screen to come through, rather than relying on a lot of quick cuts and cheap camera tricks. The result is some very interesting and exciting footage of a game that can otherwise be fairly boring to watch.
The commentary track featuring Callahan and Corso provides some great behind the scenes anecdotes and discussions of their own "poolhall junkie" backgrounds, and how they wanted the film to be authentic with regard to the game of pool. Some of their comments are insightful and interesting, but like many filmmakers they fall into the trap of gushing effusive praise about everyone they worked with. While the anecdotes and inside jokes are enjoyable enough, the banter does wear a bit thin and listeners are left wishing for more substantive comments. There are also a lot of gaps and pauses in the commentary, as the two men watch and reflect on the action on screen. Callahan even notes at one point that "there's not a lot to say here, you just want to listen and watch." No thanks. I've already watched the movie, and now I want to hear what the director has to say about it, not just listen to him and his buddy being excessively impressed with what they have created. It seems to this judge that people preparing to record a commentary should actually take some time to prepare. This should include watching the film a few times before stepping into the recording studio.
The rest of the special features are nice but nothing special. We find a theatrical trailer, cast and crew biographies (ten in all if you count Mars Callahan twice), and a red-band trailer for Sonny, starring Nicholas Cage.
Poolhall Junkies comes to us from HBO Home Video in a passable 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. While the picture quality is good it does disappoint in a few areas, tending to seem just a bit too soft and also tending to show some red push, notably in Caucasian flesh tones. The flagship audio mix is a Dolby 5.1 track that won't exactly test the limits of your sound system, but does a nice job with the surround channels for music and ambient sounds. In particular, the audio does a nice job of recreating the feel of a live club for Danny's gig in chapter 10.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one unforgivable sin of which Poolhall Junkies is guilty. As noted earlier, this film features the great Christopher Walken--but he doesn't get to dance. This is inexcusable. Sure, he gets one of the coolest film monologues in recent memory, probably one of the best motivational speeches in all of film history, but he doesn't dance, and that's just not right.
While Poolhall Junkies has a great deal of style and attitude making it a fun movie to watch, the proceedings aren't terribly original. It's like Rocky (or Bull Durham, or Cool Runnings, or The Swinging Cheerleaders--okay, maybe not The Swinging Cheerleaders, but you get the idea) with pool cues. There is the seemingly washed-up, once great champion who finds his life just isn't complete without the game he loves and he just can't cut it in the real world. There is the love interest who pushes to keep him out of the game at first, but then comes to his side when she realizes how important it is to him. Sure, basing the movie on pool rather than boxing or baseball or bobsledding gives a new twist to the old cliches, and Callahan's direction gives a certain new funky life, but it is hard to escape the feeling that Poolhall Junkies is strictly paint-by-numbers. Probably the greatest weakness of this film is the complete lack of surprise at any point in the story. As an audience, we know exactly where and how it will all end within the first ten to fifteen minutes.
I mostly liked this film, and that's a tough thing to say about a flick that carries a quote-whoring blurb from Ain't It Cool News on the back of the package. The cliches may be too much for some people to bear, but in my eyes Callahan and Co. put on enough of a new gloss that I didn't mind too much.
Forgettable but enjoyable, totally cliched and predictable, but with a few new tricks and loads of cocky attitude. I did enjoy the movie, but the critic in me forces me to consider the bigger picture. Besides, Chris Walken appears but doesn't dance? GUILTY!
We stand adjourned.
"Beating a man out of his money, that's easy. Anybody can do that. But beating a man out of his money and making him like it... that's an art." The lesson learned by pool hustler Johnny Doyle, one he doesn't want to adhere to anymore. Ever since his childhood Johnny (Mars Callahan) has been under the wing of Joe (Chazz Palminteri), a ruthless mentor whose main reason for taking on this protegee isn't parental. Now an adult, Johnny wants out, but making it on his own isn't all its cracked up to be, especially when you're known around town as the local poolhall hustler. His lawyer girlfriend (Alison Eastwood) wants him to stop, but just when it looks as if he's thrown in the cue for good, circumstances intervene (lil' bro [Michael Rosenbaum] gets himself in trouble over a bet he can't pay), and he's forced back into the game for one final showdown.
To watch "Poolhall Junkies" is to be reminded of what made the "Rocky" movies so compulsively watchable: sure, the material may be as predictable as a bad con artist, but it's a reminder that when it comes of films of this ilk and breed, there's nothing more satisfying than watching someone- preferrably the villain- get his rump kicked inside out. Mars Callahan, who in addition to playing the lead role directs and co-writes, gives the movie air to breathe despite its familiarity, injecting a catchy sense of humor and camaraderie amongst his characters that keeps things lively. The inclusion of your generic "savior" characters (a wealthy gambler played to the hilt by Christopher Walken, for example) is obviously a matter of convenience for the material, but it works so well that you hardly take notice. The film may be junk food, but since when it junk food such a bad thing every once and a while?
'Mars' Martin delivers a stroke of genius with the ultra-cool Poolhall Junkies
After leaving the screening for Poolhall Junkies, I was overcome by an uncontrollable urge to play pool immediately. The film actually gave me pool muscles, just like beer muscles, but instead of getting my ass kicked by a bouncer at the end of the night, I got my tail handed to me by my wife. I'm actually pretty good at shooting stick, but I was convinced that I was much better than I really was after seeing the incredibly cool trick-shots in Poolhall Junkies. So I didn't take my time and my wife, who has played a total of 2 times, beat me straight out in a game of 8-ball.
But that's the kind of movie Poolhall Junkies is. It gets you revved up man. Not many movies get me that pumped. I'm talking ultra-motivational flicks like Rocky,The Cincinnati Kid, Spartacus, Hoosiers, Vision Quest... Rad! Okay, maybe Rad didn't pump everyone else as it did me, but I bet I'm not the only one to break their collar bone trying to recreate one of Cru Jones's many fabulous BMX freestyle moves after seeing that movie for the first time. Why do some of us get so caught up? Because the characters in these movies are so good at something so cool that you want to -- no, need to - be that cool as well. So you convince yourself that you're that hip, and for some reason, that you possess the same cool abilities. Then reality sets in and you just dropped 3 straight games of 8-ball to your wife. An in your face welcome back to reality slap in the face! But back to my point, Poolhall Junkies is an ass-kicking movie that will get your blood pumping.
Directed by and starring Gregory 'Mars' Martin, Poolhall Junkies treads the following plot line; boy is really good at pool, boy's girlfriend doesn't want him playing pool because of violent pitfalls, boy agrees to put pool behind him, but boy's kid brother gets in deep with local mobster, so boy has to come back and play pool to get the money needed to bail out brother. In a nutshell that is the plot of Poolhall Junkies, but it's a plot that works well for many reasons.
First, Chazz Palminteri plays the heavy, Joe, a local mobster who taught our hero, Johnny Doyle (Martin), everything he knows about hustling. And as we all know, Chazz makes every movie view worthy. His portrayal is strong, and he demands attention every time he steps on the screen.
Second, Chris Walken plays Uncle Mike, a rich retired lawyer whose niece (Alison Eastwood), is dating Joe. And as every one also knows Christopher Walken makes every movie a must-see. His character is one of those guys you just love. He's rich and cocky, but his heart is planted deeply in the right place. Walken's scenes with Palminteri pull you right into the pool hall. Two great acting legends going head-to-head, who could ask for more?
Third, the movie is about pool, so there are tons of mind-boggling trick shots, masse's and banks. The cue ball comes off the table in this flick as much as a ping-pong ball does in a match between China and Japan. There are some great shots where the camera is placed above the pool table and we see every shot in sequence from break to the sinking of the 9-ball. Big surprise to look out for as well is Rick Schroder, who does a great job as Palminteri's ace. Schroder is actually a solid player in life.
And finally, the dialogue is so good that I truly believe people will be quoting from this film as long as the world's supply of slate, felt and chalk exists. Believe me, you've got plenty of cheesy young-adult sex quotes that are so old you almost want to walk out of the theatre, but hey, if Kevin Smith can get away with every one of his films being infested by old, used humor and analogies, then why shouldn't Gregory Martin? True! Outside of the old lines, this film packs in some serious lines, plays-on-words, and enough double talk to supply even the geekiest of film geeks with solid material for the next year. I'm even ready to tread the line of blasphemy by putting the quotes in Poolhall Junkies right up there with - dare I say...dare, dare -- Goodfellas.
Many critics are calling this one of the best pool movies ever, but I put it second to The Hustler, and that's partly out of respect for Jackie Gleason, who was one of the best pool players ever. But let me also say that Poolhall Junkies has a colossal lead over all other pool films, especially The Color of Money. It's a cool film, shot in a cool way, with cool actors, cool characters, a cool soundtrack and the coolest game in the world -- pool -- as the focal point. Pool is a game that is associated with hustlers, booze and dank, smoky pool halls, and Poolhall Junkies embraces that ideal. Now I'm off to brace up on my game, because before my pool muscles wore off I joined a league at the pub around the corner.
Rating: * 1/2 [1.5 stars out of 4]
You or I could've made "Poolhall Junkies" just as badly as writer-director Mars Callahan, but we never could've gotten it released, because Mars has one mysterious skill that you and I lack: the ability to get Rod Steiger, Christopher Walken, Rick Schroder, Chazz Palminteri and Alison Eastwood to sign up for supporting roles.
How he managed this, we'll never know, but never mind. His fatal flaw was conceptualizing and casting himself in the lead.
Who, exactly, is Mars Callahan? Gold Circle Films' publicity department tells us he's a frequent guest on "ER." Yes, well ... In any case, Mars is way out of his orbit here as Johnny, a latter-day Paul Newman in this lame, latter-day "Hustler."
Johnny is the ace cuestick protege of sleazy Joe (Palminteri), who won't let him resign from the poolshark biz when Johnny decides to go straight. The kid has fallen in love with a law student named Tara, played by Alison Eastwood -- you guessed it, the daughter of Clint. Steiger plays Johnny's mentor, Walken his bankroller, Schroder his arch-rival.
Miss Eastwood does an excellent job of concealing any of the limited talent she may have inherited from her dad. Palminteri is an absurdly over-the-top villain. Walken is a self-caricature. Schroder is embarrassed. Rod Steiger -- at the end of a brilliant career -- is sadly pathetique.
The audience is sadly suckered in by their names.
The minimal pool-table action itself is sadly sabotaged by hideous 1970s music.
Mars is sadly uninhabited by anything resembling human talent.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 5]
We have had movies about baseball, golf, bowls, ice hockey and even tobogganing. So I guess it was only a matter of time before we had another one about the game of pool.
This, in itself, could have been a problem, as pool, like it's older cousin snooker, isn't inherently exciting. Writer/director/actor Mars Callahan solves this problem by spicing it up with lots of gangsters, beautiful women and crazy trick shots - John Virgo eat your heart out!
The story begins 15 years earlier, when a naive, idealistic, young talented pool player finds he has been cheated out of his place at the pool championships by his mentor and supposed friend Joe (Chazz Palminteri). After teaching Joe a lesson he will never forget, Johnny (Callahan) walks out on his past and sets off to find out what life has in store for him.
Cut to present day: Johnny quits his job as a carpenter with a construction company, much to the disgust of his rich girlfriend (Alison Eastwood). As much as he has fought inevitability up to this point, Johnny decides to get back onto the pool circuit and make money playing a game that he is good at and which he loves.
It is here that we are introduced to a host of colourful characters, played effortlessly by the likes of Rod Steiger and the always brilliant Christopher Walken. Support comes from Ricky Schroder, as Brad, Johnny's nemesis, and Michael Rosenbaum, on hiatus from Smallville, as his funny younger brother.
The film follows Johnny's attempt to work his way back up the ranks of the pool elite, which, without giving anything away, I can tell you he does, exchanging wisecracks as often as potting balls, culminating in a "race to nine" showdown that pits two of the best players, Johnny and Brad, against each other - Brad playing for money, Johnny to secure his young brothers life.
Everybody looks like they are having a great time, especially the men. Certainly, there are highly talented actors in the line up, all of whom overshadow and out-act the lead player. Quite how Callahan got all these guys in his film is beyond me. I can only imagine he has some discriminating photographs!
He has written a very funny, fast paced script, but is also on hand as director, borrowing heavily from John Woo and Michael Bay in his use of slow-mo, with a hint of MTV-style fast cut editing. Conveniently, he cast himself in the lead role - I suspect because nobody else would take it - and the impression given is that this was one job too many.
Poolhall Junkies is not in the same league as The Color of Money and Callahan is no Tom Cruise, but, as a way of spending 94 minutes of your life, there are worst things.
I find it interesting that Mars Callahan (aka Gregory Mars Martin) hustled for ten years to get a movie made about... well... hustling. Is it any coincidence that the lead character in POOLHALL JUNKIES has an unrelenting desire in his heart to be who he is and won't quit until he gets what he wants? I think not. Is it an accident that director/co-writer Callahan also plays the leading role? Of course not, but the results probably weren't intentional. This is almost a really good movie. Callahan's passion to get it made and his knowledge of the subject matter are the strong points here. Too bad these positives are counterbalanced by his limited acting skills. Reviewing this title leaves me with kind of a deja vu feeling. It was only a couple weeks ago that I critiqued HATRED OF A MINUTE and reported how director Michael Kallio hurt his film by starring in it. Here we go again. Director Callahan's acting performance isn't effective and at times even contributes to bringing the overall quality of the picture down.
Callahan plays Johnny, a poolhall prodigy who has dreams of being the best in the game. Unfortunately, his shady and selfish mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri) pulls a fast one on him and holds him back from his goals. When Johnny leaves Joe to go out on his own, things turn violent and Joe ends up getting battered by some of Johnny's friends. While Joe is stewing about the incident, Johnny takes the advice of his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) and tries to leave pool-sharking behind by taking on a straight job. It doesn't work. Johnny is who he is and can't change. He quits his job and ends up playing pool again. This jeopardizes his relationship with Tara. But that's not all. Johnny's younger brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) gets into trouble with a vengeful Joe. It ends up with Danny in jail. Worse yet, he needs a sizable amount of bail money that he doesn't have. Johnny is left with no other choice but to play Brad (Rick Schroder), Joe's new protege, in an ultra high stakes "race to nine" game that could save both Johnny's and Danny's lives.
Most of the best moments take place during the poolhall matches. There is some dazzling skill on display by the players and Callahan obviously holds a deep respect for the game and the technique needed to master it. A little more visual signature style in the direction would have been appreciated, though to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure that's what Callahan was looking for. The guy knows what he's talking about when it comes to the game of pool and he apparently is content to allow the story to speak for itself. That's not the worst decision for a director to make. Why add seasoning to something that already tastes good? The subject matter itself is fascinating and probably doesn't need an array of unique camera angles to make it any better. Robert Morris does a good job with the cinematography by making everything look natural and realistic, which is particularly important to the tone of this production. The soundtrack was one of the coolest elements in the film, with even a little James Brown thrown in to spice things up. I felt that the script was rather hit and miss. The story wasn't all that layered nor did it contain any truly unexpected twists, though there were scenes where the dialogue really worked. Some of the characters offer up interesting philosophies about how they view life's events, while the pool shoptalk was informative and engaging.
A group of established character actors make up much of the cast, including the late Rod Steiger in his last film performance. Basically, Steiger does a good Rod Steiger impersonation as Nick the poolhall owner. Not to be topped, Chazz Palminteri does his best Chazz Palminteri impression as the evil Joe, a loose cannon of a man that solves most of his problems with the discreetness of a bulldozer. Don't get me wrong. Steiger and Palminteri do a good job with their parts, but the casting is almost too dead on target. We've seen both actors do these kinds of roles many times before and sometimes in better movies. On the other hand, Christopher Walken is delightful as Uncle Mike, who ends up being the millionaire backer for Johnny's final match. Walken manages to bring a freshness and spontaneity to the role that makes his character seem not so predictable. The scene where he gives a motivational speech to Johnny in an effort to fire the pool-shark up is terrific. I thought the exchanges between Walken and Palminteri in the poolhall during the third act were priceless. It was like watching two aging but still great prizefighters duke it out in the middle of the ring. These guys know their craft. Equally appealing is the work Michael Rosenbaum brings to the screen as Danny. In my view, Rosenbaum never misses a beat and makes the younger brother a lot more fun to watch than Callahan's portrayal of older brother Johnny. Those who are familiar with Rosenbaum's fine work as Lex Luthor in the Smallville series know what I mean when I say this guy is an underrated and under-employed actor. Ricky Schroder is first rate as Brad. It's nice to see Schroder reveal some of his sizable talent again after being badly miscast in a wimpy role on the usually reliable NYPD Blue television series a few years ago. Alison Eastwood doesn't have much to do as Tara other than scold Johnny about finding a real job and get hurt when she discovers that he's still a poolhall hustler. That leaves us with Callahan. Maybe getting the film made was really about a frustrated actor looking for a star vehicle for himself. However, Callahan originally co-wrote the script with Chris Corso with the thought of playing Danny, a supporting role. After ten years had passed trying to put the project together, he must have thought he was too old to play the younger brother. I agree with his thinking. But to then cast himself in the lead where he would be the central character in almost every scene makes no sense to me. Acting aspirations or not, Callahan was also the director and had enough on his plate. Why take on the extra baggage, especially when he's not a charismatic or strong enough actor to handle it? He appears curiously uninvolved in some scenes and definitely in over his head during other moments. This is my biggest gripe about the movie. I firmly believe it would have been far better had an actor closer to his art and with a more captivating screen presence been signed on as the star. It beats me why Callahan didn't think the same thing. He could have simply assigned himself another role, if he absolutely had to act in the picture.
HBO Video provides the disc with an insightful and mostly engaging audio commentary by Callahan and co-writer Corso. There are cast and crew bios, an original trailer, a trailer for Nicolas Cage's directorial debut SONNY, and chapter selections. The overall sound is exceptional and the picture is crystal clear, while the menu is simple and direct.
When it comes right down to it, all the entertainment arts are open for interpretation being a "different strokes for different folks" dynamic and that will never change. POOLHALL JUNKIES is a mostly character based production with a modest budget that prevents it from being ruined by any overproduced Hollywood clutter. While I disagree with director Callahan's decision to cast himself in the lead role and I believe he hurt the project in doing so, I still recommend this entertaining work to anyone who gets a kick out of movies about hustlers and grifters.