If it's hard to make a Western without John Wayne, it's even tougher to film a pool hall flick without Paul Newman - as "Poolhall Junkies" proves. This indie film - directed by, co-written by and starring Mars Callahan - plays like a hybrid of Newman classics "The Hustler" (1961) and "The Color of Money" (1986). All glorify dingy backroom games where money floats as freely as smoke, and youth gets lost under a smear of blue chalk.
Callahan plays Johnny Doyle, who, like Newman's Fast Eddie in "The Hustler," is a quick-lipped, cocky pool prodigy who never made it out of the minor leagues. His handler/father figure Joe (Chazz Palminteri) made sure of this, keeping his meal ticket far away from avenues of fame and big-time profit, protecting his investment and keeping the kid dependent. Early in "Poolhall Junkies," Doyle discovers Joe's betrayal, leading to an ugly split. Trying to do right by his girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) and keep his kid brother (Michael Rosenbaum) out of trouble, Doyle tries to go straight, only to be sucked back into the hustle.
Sneering Palminteri almost collapses under the weight of the menacing heavy he has played one too many times. An impressive cast of Christopher Walken, Rick Schroder and Rod Steiger (in one of his final performances) pad out some small roles, and Rosenbaum (who plays Lex Luthor in "Smallville") steals the screen whenever he steps into frame. Despite Rosenbaum's spark, "Poolhall Junkies" never steps out of genre, offering "I-yam-whad-I-yam" diatribes and badly choreographed fight scenes. For example, Palminteri breaks Doyle's wrist (a la "The Hustler") in a kid-gloves performance befitting a high school production of "The Outsiders."
Callahan even has African-American compadres discussing the use of the N-word in a scene that is anachronistic and naive compared to the word's cultural saturation in "Pulp Fiction" and every Ice Cube comedy.
Callahan's naivete doesn't stop there. Halfway through the film, while attending a business party with his paralegal girlfriend, Doyle ends up playing pool with her boss (of course). Bets are made and upped, and Doyle wins his girl a job as a lawyer, once she passes the bar. Tara finds this out much later, and instead of being furious that he made her the subject of a bet - cheapening her legal career - she accepts it as a selfless sign of love. What a gal.
Like too many sports-related movies, this one falls back on that One Big Game, the final score that will set everything right. To his credit, Callahan conjures a memorable climatic con. But gambling an entire movie on a clever payoff doesn't compensate for 90 previous minutes of timeworn plot conceits and subpar dialogue.
2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Mars Callahan; screenplay by Callahan, Chris Corso; photographed by Robert Morris; produced by Tucker Tooley, Vincent Newman, Karen Beninati. A Gold Circle Films release; opens Friday, Feb. 28. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (language, sexual content).
Johnny Doyle - Mars Callahan
Joe - Chazz Palminteri
Brad - Rick Schroder
Danny - Michael Rosenbaum
Mike - Christopher Walken
Nick - Rod Steiger Tara - Alison Eastwood
Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.