Back when Johnny Doyle was living on the streets and still having wet dreams, he also had a daydream: to make a respectable living as a professional pool player. But suddenly it's 15 years later and Johnny (Mars Callahan) is 30, working dreary jobs and hustling pool-hall pigeons thanks to his evil former childhood mentor (Chazz Palminteri), who convinced Johnny that a kid like him would never make it in the bigs.
Johnny grew up well enough. He has a sassy young lawyer girlfriend (Alison Eastwood), and a tight gang of urban-appropriate, multicultural fellow shooters: one's his brother (Michael Rosenbaum), one's Asian, one's Jewish, and one's a rich WASP. His current mentor (Rod Steiger) is a proper sage, and he's fly with the brothers in the 'hood, although he's still just white enough that he can't grasp the positive meaning of "nigga" when one of his black friends tries to explain.
Directed and co-written by Callahan, who stars as his own raffish hero, Poolhall Junkies is like so many other movies that it's almost fresh again. Part street-life serenade, part Tarantino Light, part boys will be boys, it's 90 minutes of pleasure to watch, although it hustles you all the way: Who doesn't love a good-looking guy who brims with charming bravado and surprises his gal with a roomful of balloons for her birthday when she thought he forgot?
Callahan is tall and almost lanky, with a high forehead, a spiky semi-pompadour, a slack jaw, and such tiny lips that they almost seem to move by animation, like those cats in the kitty-litter commercial. But his plainness is his charm, and he surrounds himself with a group of affable Turks who let both Johnny and Callahan live every young man's fantasy of being good at something bad.
It took Callahan 10 years to get his movie made, and he did it just in time: What would Poolhall Junkies be without its swan song by Steiger, gently reprising On the Waterfront, only this time as a good guy. "You've played so many bums you almost became a bum," he tells Johnny, in a line that no one else could say with such resonance. We also have the pleasure of Christopher Walken's cool twitch and serpentine grin as a rich guy who backs Johnny in his climactic contest against the 13th-greatest pool player in the world (Rick Schroeder). You can make a wild guess about who wins, and you may even guess how, if you're paying attention (which Johnny's opponent isn't).
Callahan has a short résumé as an actor and an even shorter one as a director (this is his second film). He's also a bit of a pool player, and a few times in Poolhall Junkies he nails a trick shot without trick photography. He rarely shoves his camera in your face, and his directing is mostly like his acting: relaxed and confident, more concerned with content than style. The fact that his movie has only a modicum of both may be his best trick of all. * * 1/2