It can be fairly argued that enthusiasm for subject matter goes a long way in filmmaking, but it seldom trumps lack of inspiration. Poolhall Junkies, a low-budget but good looking affair from director / co-writer / actor Gregory "Mars" Callahan, is nothing if not enthusiastic. It is enthusiastically derivative, it pays enthusiastic homage to everything from On the Waterfront to the Hustler to the Color of Money, and is so enthusiastically uninspired that it soon becomes wearisome. Though it might prove understandably tempting to give this film a try based upon its seductive roster of co-stars, including Chazz Palminteri (who was instrumental in getting Poolhall to the screen), the late Rod Steiger (who suffered the unique misfortune of having this as his final role), and Christopher Walken, Poolhall Junkies welshes on its own bet so quickly - and to such an extent - that the film will probably fare better on late night cable than in your DVD player.
Set in the world of petty hustlers and neon-lit halls, and shot in Salt Lake City (who knew?), Poolhall's boilerplate setup is instantly recognizable. Johnny (Callahan) explains in voice over that he has been an ace pool player since childhood. Taken under the protective – and smothering – wing of Joe (Palminteri), Johnny's chances for pool legitimacy were squandered years ago because Joe surreptitiously destroyed an invitation from a pro league. Flash forward fifteen years or so and Johnny is still working the halls under Joe's shady direction. After a quick comeuppance, Johnny has foresworn hustling altogether (see, he never wanted to be a hustler), leaving it behind to work in construction, something he is ill-equipped to do. However, the table beckons, and Johnny is soon gazing over at a pool table while drinking at a bar. All of this occurs in the first ten minutes or so, and if one has any doubts as to where Poolhall Junkies is headed just hang in there, because each plot development has a way of signposting its next one with alarming ease. One of the few pleasures that Poolhall affords the viewer is the feeling that one may be psychic.
Callahan and co-writer Chris Corso then introduce their series of ridiculously one-dimensional stock characters: Tara (Alison Eastwood), the had-it-up-to-here paralegal girlfriend about to graduate law school (Johnny notes in voice over that she is from the "good side of the tracks"); Nick (Rod Steiger), the wise-elder owner of the pool hall who bestows random bits of wisdom to Johnny; Johnny's brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum, with hair and at least having some fun), who is beginning to develop a taste for hustling himself; finally, there is "Uncle" Mike (Christopher Walken), Tara's Uncle and a bored millionaire type who is fascinated by Johnny's hustling and decides to back him. Also introduced are a painfully unfunny bunch of Danny's friends whose sole purpose seems to be providing cheap laughs with their "wacky" antics and crass riffing (think Good Will Hunting's band of raucous young men minus the wit and ease of the actors).
Johnny, now compelled to re-enter the world of hustling, has to deal with the less than approving Tara (these scenes boast, with nary a hint of irony, such exchanges as "You're playing again, aren't you?" " I play pool. That's what I do."), a consistently furious Joe, and Danny's spiral of misguided mimicry. And, just for good measure, Joe resurfaces with his new protege in the stone-faced Brad, played with relentless seriousness by Rick Schroder. (Perhaps it's Salt Lake City, but in all my days of modest pool shooting I have yet to encounter a hustler who looks like Schroder, complete with a turtleneck sweater. And I have never met one who would willingly tell people that his name was Brad.) Schroder simultaneously appears glad to be working yet somehow not-at-all-happy-about-it, and even if his turtleneck is intended as a tribute to Steve McQueen, he brings a bit less to the table (forgive the pun) than the Bullitt iconoclast.
If one could somehow look past the shameless borrowing from the aforementioned films (all that's missing here is a Robbie Robertson soundtrack, Thelma Schoonmaker, and Johnny actually saying "I coulda been a contenda"), one would still have to endure Callahan's less-than-charming swagger and uneven performance, Palminteri's creative barrage of inane vulgarity (his recent Vanilla Coke commercials afforded him more range), and some plot developments that scream "tying up loose ends no matter how ridiculous." The only temporary relief is Walken, who remains the type of actor who can make the word "hyenas" sound both enthralling and funny. At this point in his career, Walken appears to be indulging in either selfless philanthropy or workaholic gluttony – regardless, he puts a sheen on the dialogue that neither Corso nor Callahan deserves (his "buck up little camper" speech before the final "big game" is perversely fun in delivery only). It should also be noted that in a final, defiant act of ironic obviousness (I can only presume), Johnny plays his ultimate game in a "Hustler" magazine t-shirt.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Poolhall Junkies looks good. Film grain is readily apparent, but otherwise Poolhall is given a fine presentation. Robert's Morris cinematography is very well rendered - his neon-lit-halls, bathed in pockets of blues and reds, are gorgeous, and aesthetically speaking the game of billiards and allure of the tables has seldom looked finer. Black levels are consistent and deep, flesh tones appear correct, colors are vibrant, and every quick pan, slow motion, and rapidly edited sequence lifted from Scorsese (and others) consistently appears pleasing to the eye.
Audio: Poolhall Junkies includes DD 5.1 English, DD 2.0 English, and Spanish soundtracks, and generally sounds good if not spectacular. Although the occasional flourish utilizes the surround channels, Poolhall is generally a dialogue-driven film, which remains easy to hear throughout its duration. The music selections, which range from James Brown funk to swing music, are also given a decent treatment, and every ball being smacked around is quite clear.
English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Extras: Included in this release are the film's original trailer and the trailer for Sonny.
Also on board is a full length commentary track by co-writer Chris Corso and writer / director / actor Callahan, which is interesting for all the wrong reasons. Beginning with some rather banal chatter, the duo soon wavers between gratitude toward those who helped the project and an inexplicable level of self-satisfaction with the end result. Moreover, they tend to pause often and at great lengths (not sure whether that's a good thing or not), which prevents any sort of rhythm between the two. Lastly, since the film already speaks ill enough for itself, the inclusion of a commentary is more masochistic than insightful.
Lastly, brief cast and crew bios are also included.
Final Thoughts: Rent Poolhall Junkies, if you must, for Walken and Walken alone. Otherwise, you'll find yourself on the losing end of a $26.98 hustle.