Murder, sex and cigars share equal screen time in "Liar's Poker," an ultra-macho take on manly codes and double-crosses. Impaired by stilted performances and a frat-boy look at loyalty, pic doesn't unwrap its crafty twists soon enough to take the pot. While not a complete bluff, this no-frills indie will have a hard time finding a full house.

Murder, sex and cigars share equal screen time in “Liar’s Poker,” an ultra-macho take on manly codes and double-crosses. Impaired by stilted performances and a frat-boy look at loyalty, pic doesn’t unwrap its crafty twists soon enough to take the pot. While not a complete bluff, this no-frills indie will have a hard time finding a full house.

The good news is that tyro director-scribe Jeff Santo’s story gets more creative toward its finale. A crime drama that jells into an adequate whodunit, “Poker” ends like a fun, trashy novel that exposes the surprise killer on the last page.

But that ultimate thrill can’t atone for narrative inconsistencies and some very bland acting. All of the suspects are supposed to conceal their respective hands in terms of different illegal activities, but the resulting lack of personality development is a real drawback. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ kinetic bass player, Flea, is the noteworthy exception; his dimwitted henchman is the movie’s most interesting individual.

In Cancun, Mexico, a bunch of hunky studs are poolside. The leader of the pack is obviously Jack (Richard Tyson), a suave but duplicitous car salesman who threatens children and puffs away on a stogie nonstop. He’s there with his loopy sidekick Freddie (Flea), muscular colleague Niko (Caesar Luisi), nice guy Vic (Jimmy Blondell) and bean-counter Art (Colin Patrick Lynch).

One month later, the gang is back in the working world, and the activity centers on Creed, Vic’s club in which Jack has invested $250,000. Running it as a not-so-silent partner, Jack asks Art to go by the place, secure the appropriate paperwork and cook the books. But Art never makes it past the alley; he’s stabbed to death, and Vic quickly disposes of the body (there’s nothin’ a blowtorch can’t fix).

After the rub-out, the underlying connections become clear: Jack and Niko are competing for the randy Rebecca (Amelia Heinle), Vic is beginning to resent his loan obligation, and Freddie is spying on everyone. Even Jack’s unhappy wife, Linda (Pamela Gidley), is in on the action — she can’t stand her husband and has eyes for one of his pals.

The troubling events lead the four friends to a secluded fishing hole, where they presumably will outline their next move. But what starts out as a discussion turns into accusations that build up to a round of deadly confrontations. Through flashbacks and admissions, clues are discovered and motivations revealed.

Anyone who has ever played a round of the title game knows that a skillful winner needs to mislead without a “tell,” and that’s exactly Santo’s plan here. But keeping a lid on the plot’s details is a bad gamble; the excitement eventually arrives, but it doesn’t cancel out the dullness of the first hour.

The self-regarding men are heavy on attitude and light on energy, and the women aren’t much better. Santo’s misogynistic ideals — every woman is a floozy, a cheater or a clinger — are made worse by wooden portrayals. Heinle is all chest and no brain, and Gidley is ineffective as the scheming spouse with cruel intentions.

The visuals are also flat. Lenser Giles M.I. Dunning doesn’t take advantage of the seedy settings, opting instead for a by-the-numbers approach to mean streets and art deco bars.

Liar's Poker

Production

A North Branch release of a Savino Brothers production. Produced by Billy Savino, Carlos H. Sanchez, Jeff Santo. Executive producer, Billy Savino. Co-executive producers, Johnny Savino, Patrick Savino, Paul Savino. Directed, written by Jeff Santo.

Crew

Camera (color) Giles M.I. Dunning; editor, Kathryn Himoff; music, Peter Himmelman; production designer, William Perretti; sound (Dolby), John Salcedo; associate producer, Michael P. Hirshenson; assistant director, Alberto Gieco. Reviewed at Ticketmaster screening room, Los Angeles, Oct. 26, 1999. Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Jack - Richard Tyson Niko - Caesar Luisi Vic - Jimmy Blondell Freddie - Flea Brooke - Neith Andrina Linda - Pamela Gidley Rebecca - Amelia Heinle Art - Colin Patrick Lynch
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