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 clichés, 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 clichés 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 clichéd 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.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary with Director/Star/Co-Writer Mars Callahan and Co-Writer Chris Corso
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