“Poker Night” offers a near-indigestible mix of tricky “Pulp Fiction”-esque structural convolution, torture-porn tropes and a somewhat distasteful level of snark, making for a self-satisfied puzzle that most viewers will run out of patience trying to unravel. This first theatrical feature for TV veteran Greg Francis won’t linger long in theaters after its single-screen Los Angeles launch on Dec. 20. Nonetheless, some familiar cast faces and other marketable elements should make it salable in various markets as a home-format item; it was released on VOD and iTunes earlier this month.
Jeter (Beau Mirchoff, TV’s “Awkward”) is a rookie cop just promoted to detective. After an instance of highly public heroism, he’s invited to the titular ritual evening, where, between playing hands, a circle of older policemen (including Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito and Ron Eldard) school him by relating stories “worth a year’s street experience.” Each invariably involves apprehending a murder suspect (as far back as 1979), and as they’re told in turn, our young protag imagines himself acting out each storyteller’s role.
But Jeter has a problem more pressing than any presented by these flashback scenarios: As we’ve already learned, after that poker game folded for the night, he answered a domestic-dispute call, only to wind up tasered. He wakes up bound to a chair in a basement dungeon of sorts, the TV news informing him that he’s been missing for three days. His masked keeper is also holding hostage Amy (Halston Sage), a cop’s daughter who’d been throwing her underage self at our none-too-resistant protag. As the two captives try to escape, the tall-tale cop flashbacks continue. The perp (Michael Eklund) also gets his own explanatory flashbacks — in which his ever-present leather face covering is meant to lend a note of absurdist humor to child rape and murder, among other rebellions against “normal life.”
The cops’ tiresome bullish bravado, the multiple voiceover narrators, the incessant reversals of fortune and especially those endless flashbacks within flashbacks create a sense of overload that’s meant to be giddily outre, but grows empty and wearying instead. As a result, there’s little genuine suspense, and the sometimes-sadistic violence is scarcely rendered more effective by the uneven bad-taste humor with which it’s treated. After a while, it’s hard to care where things are headed, what’s “real” (since two of the poker-playing policemen turn out to have already died in the line of duty), or how it all ultimately fits together — assuming it actually does.
Set in small-town Warsaw, Ind., but shot in British Columbia, this U.S.-Canada co-production is adequately acted under the circumstances. The most notable element in the polished assembly is Scott Glasgow’s score, if only because it’s stuck working overtime trying to heighten climax after self-canceling climax.