Judge Gordon Sullivan gets his kicks on Route 66.
Live to ride…ride to die.
The kind of motorcycles many bikers prefer (like the archetypal Harley-Davidson) are odd beasts. They're not particularly well-suited to urban travel because of the stop-and-go nature of city traffic. They're also not terribly well-suited to all-day touring because so many of the creature comforts of the touring bike have been stripped to make the machine leaner and meaner. No, the biker's typical ride shows its best colors on the two-to-four-hour journey otherwise known as a run, where they can let the accelerator out and feel the power of the engine without risking permanent lower back pain. Now these runs, in biker circles, are known as an event where those who ride the iron horse can come together to drink and be merry. Sometimes, though, they like a theme, and so the "poker run" was born. The poker run involves a series of premeditated stops, usually in bars, where the participants draw a single card. After visiting the requisite number of establishments the player has a "hand," just like regular poker. At the end of the run the player with the best hand walks away with the pot. No, there's not a lot of skill involved, but it's a great excuse to congregate and ride. Poker Run, on the other hand, is more like Easy Rider meets The Hills Have Eyes, and the only thing the two seem to share in common is that they'll both likely lead to a lot of drinking.
Poker Run is about a pair of "RUBs," Rich, Urban Bikers, who want to get a sweet deal on a pair of bikes from a creepy guy named Ray (Robert Thorne). After purchasing the bikes, the pair convince their wives to come with them on a local poker run on Route 66. There they encounter Ray again, and, after a bar fight, get ejected from the run. Ray convinces the RUBs and their wives to take a trip off the beaten path and the group ends up at a deserted motel. There Ray kidnaps the wives and leaves the RUBs to find them through a series of increasingly deadly clues.
Poker Run is by-the-numbers survival horror with a biker twist. We've seen pretty much every part of the plot before, from psychotic bikers to crazy killer demands. This is both the film's strength and its ultimate weakness.
The film should be lauded for orchestrating all of its elements flawlessly. From the acting to the cinematography, Poker Run seems the work of a much bigger budget. I was especially impressed with the acting which was uniformly strong for a low-budget, independent feature. In fact the acting was so good, especially from the leads playing Ray and Allen, that I didn't notice how meager many of the horror/thriller elements were until after the credits rolled. This is a film that does a decent job getting by on suggestion and psychological terror rather than showing a bunch of gory torture. Amazingly enough, it succeeds (for the most part).
These strengths make the film's faults all the more glaring. Despite the caliber of the acting and direction, nothing can overcome the tired nature of the script's conceit. We're still stuck with a hillbilly looking psycho torturing suburbanites for his twisted pleasure. Because the film doesn't bring any new narrative elements to the table, it has to rely on the quality of the torture to keep things moving. As I said before, the quality of the psychological stuff is well done, but because none of it is new, it grow tired long before the movie ends. Ultimately we learn nothing significant about Ray or Allen (or anyone else, really), and that leaves us with yet another film about a weak suburbanite against a backwoods psycho. That's not a horrible place to be, especially when it's well-done, but it's disappointing given the talent behind and in front of the camera.
The DVD for Poker Run is as mixed a bag as the film itself. The box claims the film is presented in an anamorphic transfer, and that is decidedly not the case. Not being anamorphic doesn't hurt the look too much, though. There's a gritty, low-budget feel to the images and that's preserved on this disc, especially in the darker night scenes. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the excellent rock music used for the score, and those sounds come beautifully out of the stereo soundtrack. Dialogue is occasionally hard to hear, but, overall, the track works. Extras lead off with an interesting commentary by director Julian Higgins. He starts off the commentary promising to fill it up with as much information as possible, and he largely succeeds by providing information about the genesis and production of the film. Other extras include a copy of the public-domain cartoon that Billy watches early in the film, some behind-the-scenes shots, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and the film's trailer.
Poker Run is a serviceable slice of survival horror that never manages to live up to the promise of its actors or director. Hopefully Julian Higgins next film will offer a little bit more in the story department. For now, Poker Run is worth a rental for fans of backwoods psychos or biker stories, but only after the top-shelf stuff has been consumed.
Guilty of wasting its potential on a tired horror trope.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
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