“Poolhall Junkies” is a film about hustlers with a credible feel to it. Energetic effort by director/co-writer/star Mars Callahan mostly overcomes its grungy technical quality with entertaining dialogue, nervy confrontation scenes, decent thesping and some truly spectacular shooting on the green velvet. More authentic-feeling than “The Color of Money,” if not “The Hustler,” completely non-arty low-budgeter would be a crowd-pleaser for mass audiences if they could be induced to see it. However, connecting this film to its natural constituency will be difficult in today’s theatrical marketplace; it might be worth a try from an enterprising distrib willing to work the boonies, but best results may well await in video and cable.
At least in print caught, visual aspect, with the murky lighting and grainy texture, resembles a 30-year-old copy of a ’70s film that never looked good to begin with. But this deficiency merely serves to remind that such a picture stood a much better chance commercially back in that era, when blue-collar dramas thrived.
Although some of the dramatics are contrived, pic benefits immeasurably from feeling like an inside job; it doesn’t feel “researched,” but rather lived, then written to certain commercial specifications. Callahan plays Johnny Doyle, an orphan taken as a teenager under the wing of con man Joe (Chazz Palminteri), who developed the kid into a dazzling player capable of hustling practically any small-time hot-shot, but who prevented him from entering the pro ranks as his talents warranted.
When Johnny discovers Joe’s deception after 15 years, he breaks with his mentor, who thuggishly retaliates by doing to Johnny’s wrist what some out-hustled thugs did to Paul Newman’s thumbs in “The Hustler.” Natch, it all builds up to a tense climactic match between Johnny and Joe’s new boy, Brad (Rick Schroder), that’s meant to settle things between Johnny and Joe once and for all.
Script by Callahan and Chris Corso (close friends who allegedly met while hustling one another in a pool hall) is fattened a bit by some extraneous stuff concerning Johnny’s admiring kid brother (Michael Rosenbaum) and his knockabout posse, as well as by the tedious objections by Johnny’s incongruously well-heeled girlfriend, lawyer-to-be Tara (Alison Eastwood), to his low life, which lead to his equally tedious attempts to hold down straight jobs.
But all this falls quickly into the shadow of the pool scenes, which look like the real deal despite the tricked-and-sped-up filming of some shots. The way the scenes are covered, there can be little doubt that most of the actors are playing their own games, and no doubt at all that Callahan really knows his way around a pool cue. He, Schroder and some others put on quite a show, and the repartee that goes along with it is often tart and amusing.
Callahan, a very tall fellow resembling a cross between Ben Affleck and Christopher Walken, has a tendency toward diffidence, but holds the screen reasonably well in the central role. Others are good to adequate, but much better than that is Walken, who brings great gusto to his turn as Johnny’s wealthy new benefactor, a man who derives great delight from taking on a skunk like Joe.
Pic was shot in wintry Salt Lake City, and soundtrack features a not-bad selection of tunes.