Missing His Cue

Would-be auteur Mars Callahan stumbles on a Rocky road

Once upon a time, a scuffling actor named Sylvester Stallone decided that the key to stardom was to write a screenplay as a perfect vehicle for himself. Since then, untold hundreds or thousands of hopefuls, mistaking Stallone's good luck (and, yes, talent) for some sort of cosmic justice, have confidently tried to follow in his footsteps...often following them right off a cliff to be dashed on the rocks below.

Poolhall Junkies, the sophomore feature from writer-director-actor Mars Callahan (a.k.a. Gregory "Mars" Martin--go figure) goes so far as to pattern itself somewhat on Rocky, with Callahan as Stallone and the late Rod Steiger (visibly unhealthy) as Burgess Meredith. Mix that with Diner and with the inevitable shades of The Hustler--impossible to avoid when making a pool film. The result is by no means the embarrassment that many such offerings from unjustifiably vain actor-auteurs have been, but nor does it present much of anything new or compelling to demand one's attention.

Johnny (Callahan), a top-notch pool player, might have made it as a professional. But he's spent 15 years under the wing of mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri), a slimy manager of hustlers, who considers him his private property. Johnny, fed up with how he's wasted his life so far, breaks off from Joe, which the latter will never forgive.

Walken, after midnight: When C-dub is on screen, Junkies is juiced.
Walken, after midnight: When C-dub is on screen, Junkies is juiced.

Part of Johnny's change of direction comes from his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood), a law student with high aspirations. Part of it comes from his guilt at not being around for his little brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum, who really does look like he could be Callahan's brother), a hothead who is in danger of developing into a pool-hall lowlife himself.

Unfortunately, our hero keeps slipping off the no-pool wagon. Having squandered his formative years, the only honest jobs he can find are dull, low-paying, entry-level positions. Despite Tara's disapproval, Johnny can't resist his love for the game, the chance for easy money and the lure of the action, no matter how sleazy it may be.

When Tara takes him to a fancy party, he hustles her boss (Peter Mark Richman), impressing quirky retired millionaire Mike (Christopher Walken). Of course, Tara then tosses him out, and he is furious at his own macho backsliding.

Crises develop, and Johnny has to play once more--this time against Brad (Rick Schroder), Joe's new protégé.

Most of the film unfolds from Johnny's point of view--at times, he even narrates in voiceover--but, oddly, Callahan cuts away every now and then to scenes of Danny and his three buddies shooting the shit at a local diner. This back-and-forth structure diffuses the story's focus, particularly since the diner scenes feel like they've wandered in from a movie of a different genre--Old High School Pals Trying to Make the Transition to Adulthood While Hanging Around Talking About Sex.

For the most part, the film is technically smooth, although one scene in a pawnshop is badly edited in a way that any second-year film student would know how to avoid. And toward the end, the plot logistics begin to seem a little fishy: Desperate for cash, Johnny plays and loses; at which point more money keeps turning up to keep him in the game--vastly more money, in fact, than he needed in the first place. The characters' motivations follow a kind of tortured logic, but the mechanics still feel awkward.

The movie's strongest virtues are in the performances. As an actor, Callahan has a fairly compelling, brooding presence; he looks like a '50s rock star and emits a James Dean-ish angst. His underplaying is contrasted to Rosenbaum's tense, hyper energy. Palminteri effortlessly portrays a total villain, and Eastwood does the best she can in an underwritten, generic "girlfriend" part.

Every time Walken appears, the film cranks up a notch. Between this, Catch Me If You Can and the Spike Jonze Fatboy Slim video from a year or two ago, the guy is really on a roll. The film's high point is when Walken squares off against Palminteri--you can feel the actors having a blast.

 
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