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POOLHALL JUNKIES

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Mars Callahan, Chazz Palminteri, Rod Steiger, Michael Rosenbaum, Rick Schroder, Alison Eastwood, Christopher Walken
Director: Mars Callahan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: HBO Video
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: August 26, 2003

“You better watch your mouth, Johnny!”

“You watch my mouth, Chico. Cause you sure as hell don’t wanna see me play pool.”

Film ***1/2

One could look at Poolhall Junkies and think immediately that it’s nothing more than a new generation version of The Hustler. In fact, both that classic 1963 film and its sequel, The Color of Money, are basically the only other two films ever made about pool hustling, if I’m not mistaken. But I’d be lying if I said that this ultra slick film didn’t have any tricks of its own.

The film has a distinctive feel about. Watching it, I found myself being seduced by the art of pool hustling, which I can tell you is a seriously dangerous and tricky game. I found myself wishing that I could be just like some of the characters in the film, who are extraordinarily good at the sport and are able to make some quick cash after a simple game of eight ball pool, just as if they were reaching into someone’s pocket and taking money right then and there.

The story centers on Johnny Doyle (Mars Callahan), a compulsive pool hustler who is at the top of his game. He never loses, which may give him the right to be so compulsive. Even though Johnny has no problems with scoring wads of cash game after game, he regrets his position in life. Earlier in his life, Johnny had the opportunity to go professional, a dream that was shattered by his corrupt pool mentor and backer, Joe (Chazz Palminteri).

When Johnny was abandoned by his parents as a boy, Joe took him in under his wing, and pressured him from the start, in addition to taking a big cut of his winnings and keeping him from going to the pros. In the opening of the film, Johnny makes a risky move by setting Joe up for betrayal in a unique way as his payback. This particular sequence happens to include the added bonus of James Brown’s “The Payback” playing in the background.

Even with Joe out of the picture, for the time being at least, Johnny still has his personal life to deal with, which is something of a mess. His longtime girlfriend, Tara (Alison Eastwood), has pleaded with him to give up the hustling scene. She’s currently in law school and wishes Johnny take up a legit business. Johnny also has to deal with his reckless younger brother, Danny (Michael Rosenbaum), who strives to be a nightclub singer. Then Johnny has a chance meeting at a business party with Alison’s uncle, Mike (Christopher Walken), who takes a liking to the kid, and is needless to say, very impressed with his pool talent.

What Poolhall Junkies achieves is a high level of entertaining and intriguing insight into the maneuvering of pool hustling. While the main storyline isn’t entirely original, as it seems to reflect the plot of Rounders on a few occasions, it manages to move and unfold in a much satisfying way, and I give it much deserved high marks for that.

Mars Callahan, who also directed and co-wrote the film, is quite a fresh new talent. What I appreciate most about his performance as Johnny is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and plays the role at just the right note. The supporting cast is a much strong one, including the last screen appearance of Rod Steiger as the poolhall manager, and a striking turn from Rick Schroder as Johnny’s rival hustler. Christopher Walken, with only about ten minutes screen time, once again proves that you don’t need a lengthy role in order to steal a movie, which is what Walken always does.

Poolhall Junkies is an endlessly entertaining sports drama that is an all around must see.

Video ***

HBO delivers an all around nicely done anamorphic presentation of this film. About 90 percent of the film takes place at night, and being that this is a low budget film, the turn out of many shots isn’t eye popping, but very exceptional. The cinematography is very well handled, and the transfer holds this notion up. For the most part, images are clean and crisp to a tee, and the colors are as naturally good as can be.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix really caught me by surprise, being that I forgot how good a simple game of pool could sound. The many sequences of eight ball pool, in addition to the impressive usage of retro songs, most notably The Payback, which is played twice (can’t get enough of that song!), are indeed the high points of this impressive audio transfer. Dialogue, in addition, is very well delivered and is clear as can be.

Features **

Extras are light, but noteworthy as we get a good commentary track by Mars Callahan and co-writer Chris Corso, a trailer and a bonus trailer for the film Sonny, and some cast & crew bios.

Summary:

Poolhall Junkies hits the 8-ball high mark for stellar acting and storytelling. Mars Callahan delivers a much impressive triple threat as writer/director/actor, and I eagerly await his next film as result.