PLOT: When fresh-faced detective Jeter is taken hostage by masked pedophilic madman, he must conjure the lessons learned from his grizzled superiors during a poker game one night in order to escape. Shuffle up and deal!
REVIEW: After two-decades of yeoman's toil in television, writer/director Greg Francis has chosen to backdrop his flashy feature debut in a world he clearly knows very little about. POKER NIGHT - boasting an impressive ensemble that includes Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, Titus Welliver and Ron Eldard - is a poorly dealt hand of low cards and mixed suits that not even the best bluffers in the world could betray. In fact, there is very little poker action in the film, and frankly, even less knowledge about its titular subject matter. False advertising indeed. Jumbled, disjointed and ultimately disappointing - POKER NIGHT is all style and no substance...a smoky flash-bang muzzle of fired-off blanks. A pair of bullets in the hole (aces) this ain't!
In typical nonlinear fashion, the flick begins with a scene from the end. Our upstart greenhorn detective, Jeter (Beau Mirchoff), who lay bleeding in the street, provides wall-to-wall narration from here on out...crisscrossing between what happened in the lead up to the ill-fated first scene and what takes place directly after. And this is where the flick is already at a disadvantage. The way it so abruptly jumps between the past, present and future are far too confusing for anyone's good, far too much of a chore to keep track of what the hell is going on. The editing is so choppy it's simply a laborious watch. Even when an interesting segment begins to take hold, the momentum is completely interrupted by flashing back or forward in time to another segment of the story. And you just feel sort of lost while watching it. It's fractious nature by design ends up stirring an apathetic viewership after awhile. The more it persists, the less you give a damn.
Here's the detailed plot contrivance. Jeter has been taken hostage by demented pedophilic serial killer who dons a COLLECTOR style mask, with excess stitching that resembles large whiskers. Not terribly intimidating. We then cut back three days prior, where Jeter partakes in a poker game with his far more experienced superiors. This cast of badasses include Lt. Calabrese (Perlman), Bernard (Espostio), Cunningham (Eldard) and Maxwell (Welliver), all of whom are grossly underutilized and given nothing worthy of their talents to perform. Wasted opportunity! However, the point of this poker game is to impart wisdom upon the underclassmen, in this case Jeter, through harrowing tales of survival each has endured on the force over the years. Pretty damn silly conceit if you ask me, which only grows more ludicrous and farfetched by the passing reel.
So each of the four actors above give a detailed account of their grisliest police encounter, which is supposed to inform how Jeter should escape his captor's clutch. And not just escape, but rescue a kidnapped blond gal as well (Halston Sage). Uh, okay. He's supposed to, in the darkest recesses of his mind, recount what advice his colleagues have offered, act upon them and ultimately quell his assailant. Problem is, none of the stories or lessons are even remotely compelling. In fact, Bernard's pearl of wisdom literally boiled down to, when you're in the shit, count on yourself and no one else. Wow, how edifying. Worse yet, as the flick goes on...the crosscut storylines of past and present visually merge as one, perhaps as a way to save production time and money, where Jeter is now playing out his buddies stories as if he's the main man. We get contrived, convoluted shots of Jeter bound, gagged and bleeding (previously in the home of his kidnapper) now at the poker table, with more hair-pulling narration. Trust me, if that sounds confusing, I'm being nice. It's an utter muddle!
Most egregious here though, aside from the grossly misused cast of heavyweights in favor of this far less interesting Mirchoff fella, is, for a movie called POKER NIGHT, it's lack of poker. I mean, wow. Why even use poker as a plot-point if you have either no knowledge or intention to highlight the game? So unnecessary. And the most damming evidence of a dearth of poker acumen isn't even the stupefying single hand we do actually see. No, it's not that a full-house gets trumped by quads in a game of five-card stud (you kidding me!), it's the fact that the script actually insisted the players call deuces "twos." Twos? Twos. A dead giveaway right there, as no poker player with a morsel of experience in the history of the world has referred to deuces as twos. It's never happened. Ever.
If I'm forced to play a few high cards, if any, I'd say they come in the form of Perlman and Welliver. The former is simply as cool as they come, and honestly, just seeing Perlman's face is a true joy. Again, he isn't given material worth his talents here, but anytime he was onscreen, the film was clearly at its best. The same can be said of Titus Welliver, who probably has the most entertaining "lesson" to recollect, certainly the most cogent. He goes on a sting operation to lure and arrest a gay serial killer who collects severed pinky-fingers. Pretty droll vignette I suppose, largely due to the compelling nature of Titus as an actor. He and Perlman are the definite standouts, with Eldard (when did he become a dead-ringer of Gerard Depardu?) and Esposito (Gus Fring, yo) taking a backseat.
In the end, POKER NIGHT isn't much more than a pot-full of smoke, flash and dazzle. Remember after PULP FICTION came out and it seemed like every subsequent 90s crime flick was just a sad, ersatz attempt to recreate the Tarantino mien. All those nonlinear style-over-substance movies that looked cool for awhile but ultimately amounted to a hill of beans. Yeah, well POKER NIGHT is kind of like that. It's far too concerned with its twisty plot contrivances and frenzied back and forth storytelling. Sadly, as a fan of both poker and this ensemble, it just doesn't work. Do wise and go watch SUICIDE KINGS or ROUNDERS instead.