In "Poolhall Junkies" someone always seems to be telling the young pool shark played by Mars Callahan that he's a natural. "You have the ability to be the best," growls the owner of a local pool hall, a pugnacious old-timer played with characteristic intemperance by the late Rod Steiger. "If you think you're a loser, you will be a loser."
As might be expected in a movie in which characters deliver speeches straight from the self-help shelf, this Norman Vincent Peale homily works like a charm for Johnny although not for Callahan who, in his duel role of co-writer and director, quickly proves the limits of the power of positive thinking.
Narrated in intermittent voice-over, the film traces the ups, downs and trick shots of Callahan's Johnny, who struggles with his talent, his girlfriend, Tara (Alison Eastwood) and his Svengali-like mentor (Chazz Palminteri). It will be familiar to admirers of "The Hustler" as well as any other story in which self-doubt haunts self-realization. The thing is that Johnny's problem is not really a lack of self-confidence but a sense of purpose.
It isn't that nothing happens in "Poolhall Junkies," it's that nothing interesting does. For much of the time, Johnny just shoots pool, perfects the part of the aggrieved boyfriend ("I play, Tara, that's what I do") and hangs around his baby shark brother (Michael Rosenbaum). When hustling and hanging out prove a dead end, he gives the straight world a run, which means for about five minutes he tries to drive nails into planks and, somewhat more colorfully, hawk mobile homes.
Callahan, who directed his first feature, "Zigs," under the more prosaic moniker Gregory "Mars" Martin, shares the romance of the pool hall but neither his script nor his direction ever transcend the milieu's cliches. The film groans under the weight of its platitudes no matter how lightly Johnny dances around a pool table. Like Ed Burns and Vin Diesel, both of whom have starred in features they've directed, Callahan has an attractive self-confidence that helps smooth over the roughness, but like them, he might best apply his talent in front of the camera.
The strength of the film is, unsurprisingly, Christopher Walken, whose gift for transcending weak material has developed into something of an art form. As an enigmatic rich guy with money to burn who takes a liking to Johnny, Walken doesn't absolve "Poolhall Junkies" of its sins, but he does go a long way toward making the time pass. As he rolls words around in his mouth, changing the beat between lines and playing with the pitch as effortlessly as Yma Sumac, you're again reminded that it's a rare performer who can bewitch us by making us completely forget what he's saying.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexual content
Times guidelines: There are as many expletives as in the collected David Mamet.
Circle Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films present a Vincent Newman and Tucker Tooley Production of a Mars Callahan film, released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Director Mars Callahan. Writers Mars Callahan, Chris Corso. Producers Tucker Tooley, Vincent Newman, Karen Beninati. Director of photography Robert Morris. Production designer Robert La Liberte. Editor James E. Tooley. Costume designer Kristin Persson. Music Richard Glasser. Casting Roe Baker. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.