You wouldn't be wrong for mistaking Poolhall Junkies as a cocky vanity project for writer/director/star Gregory 'Mars' Callahan (who looks like Jason Lee and Casey Affleck had an affably obnoxious man-baby). Still, it's a slick, snappy sports romp, propelled by a spectacular funky score, and, with the help of some choice casting, more fun than it has any right to be. The story is a tale as old as time, but Callahan wisely ricochets off the main criticism with the most beloved Paul Newman pool precedents (too much talk, not enough pool!), and recognizes that a sterling sports movie is made in its games, not the background drama. The pool hall scenes are flawlessly shot (pun!) with vivacious, crackling energy, and plentiful enough to keep the film breezy and bumping.
The writing on the whole is about as high school calibre as you'd expect, from the hip smack talk posturing which reaches eye-rolling heights at times, to each and every poor female characters, risibly written as 'Male Love Interest Validation Device 101' (Alison Eastwood - yes, Clint's daughter - gamely shoulders the worst of this). Still, some exchanges are goofy enough to genuinely raise laughs, and the cast are all so visibly relaxed and cheery it's hard not to take to them. Callahan himself aces the cocksure swagger, which is enough to carry him through his less impressive melodramatic asides, and he shares some good banter with his younger brother, played by Smallville's Michael Rosenbaum, who, with hair, recalls the wholesome cheekiness of a young Paul Rudd.
Chazz Palminteri's thuggish backer-turned-mortal enemy and Christopher Walken's 'Daddy Warbucks deus ex-machina' may be dopily motivated plot devices rather than characters, but they're both hugely charismatic enough to make it worth the while. Palminteri may be the most stereotypical mobster actor in the industry, but he pours on the threat here, while Walken matches him with enough sly jubilance to reaffirm him as the coolest cat around, owning two characteristic monologues, and nailing an impossibly hard trick shot in one take. Finally, Rod Steiger is delightfully gruff as the pool hall owner with a heart of gold in his final film appearance here.
There are few surprises here as the plot doles out, but the hustling extends beyond the narrative: Poolhall Junkies is too jaunty and enjoyable not to take to. It's not as thought out or engaging as The Hustler (or even The Colour of Money), but Callahan keeps things energetic throughout, and benefits from going shot for shot between pool and drama. Whenever the balls are racked and James Brown blares, Poolhall Junkies has too much moxie not to drink the kool aid, and soak up the sweat of the pool hall anew.