A small and obscure pool hustler drama with a cast featuring Christopher Walken, Chazz Palminteri, and the late Rod Steiger sounds like a hustle all its own, more obvious than the old four-balls-off-the-table routine. But here the hustle lies in the reservations of the skeptics—Poolhall Junkies is a brassy bit of entertainment that makes up in hard-boiled showmanship what it lacks in subtlety. It doesn’t take a mastermind to think up an enjoyable pool movie; all you need are a few tough-guy actors, dialogue you can smash concrete with, a dozen or so dazzling trick shots lined up, and it’s more or less in the pocket. Co-writer and director Mars Callahan recognizes his limitations and shoots accordingly; he’s the kind of hustler-filmmaker who’s confident because he knows he’s going to beat you by outthinking you. He recognizes that Poolhall Junkies isn’t The Hustler (much less Chalk, Rob Nilsson’s gritty, inventive indie drama from a couple years back), and he wears the contrivances of his plot on his sleeve, distracting you with zinging bushels of too-cool one-liners and inventive vulgarities until you can’t chew any more. That he’s cooked up such a macho, unabashed tribute to his elders easily carries the film across the finish line.
Callahan also stars as Johnny, a pool natural who as a kid was on the fast track to joining the pro circuit but was roped into late nights composed of fast talking and faster money by his shady mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri). Fifteen years later, Johnny can’t decide whether he finally wants to go legit or eke out a living in some lower-tier job at the urging of his girlfriend (Alison Eastwood, bland as the minimum estrogen quota required by law). Poolhall Junkies is not a film that makes its mark with its inventive storytelling. All of the film’s extraneous threads and hangers-on (most of which include Johnny’s younger brother Danny and his ragtag group of friends, all aspiring hustlers themselves, who act as a kind of geeky Greek chorus to Johnny’s adventures) inevitably add up to a final showdown between Johnny and Joe, who’s now put his stake behind an icy top-level pro (Rich Schroder).
Even if you can see each and every turn Poolhall Junkies will make 15 minutes before it does, it’s the kind of film built on vivid conversation and crackling archetypal character bits, and in those departments it’s pure joy. Callahan’s cocky, what-me-worry strut (which often recalls Ben Affleck’s boyish callousness, only with a more genuine dash of irresponsibility) makes the perfect foil for his acting opposite a group of legends; he’s not so much giving a performance of his own as he is adding fuel to their fire. Rod Steiger’s swan song is a beauty; he takes the small role of Nick, the owner of Johnny’s local hangout, and invests it with a dignity that seems to encapsulate every bit of wisdom and vitality the actor amassed over the years. After years of lending his time to one odious film after another, his line about “if you play with bums, you become a bum” takes on a knowing edge of sadness, but there’s no remorse there. He’s looking to the future and passing along his acumen, and his work here demonstrates that that he’s no bum.
But the film is ultimately owned by Walken, who in only a couple of scenes seems more than willing to gluttonously walk away with the entire film by himself. His entrance features an off-screen line (“I’m gonna step outside and get some smog”) that’s so patently Walken in its delivery that it left me laughing so hard I missed most of his next scene, and the climax of the film isn’t so much about Johnny’s triumphant bank shots as it is about Walken’s opportunity to stare down Palminteri in a clash of the titans, open a briefcase full of money, let that twinkle run through his eyes and give ol’ Chazz the Fuck You glare, the one that dares the other guy to just say one word back, just one. With moments like these it’s easy to overlook Callahan’s lapses in sensibility. Any filmmaker who goes out of his way to give great actors some scenery to chew on, and entertain us in the process, is down in my book. If the cue fits, wear it.