Writer-director Greg Francis’ Poker Night gives the popular game a distinctly scary new look with this crime thriller starring Beau Mirchoff, Ron Perlman & Giancarlo Esposito…
Sometimes there’s nothing that quite beats a poker night. An evening with the guys, enjoying a beer or two, eating chips, having a laugh with friends. And of course if you win then it’s all the better. But of course when Hollywood gets hold of it and drags it through Tinseltown, it’s a whole different story.
And when it comes to Poker Night, it’s certainly an interesting one.
The film, released at the end of December, doesn’t follow what we usually expect from gambling films and is a far cry from the likes of The Gambler, Rounders, or Runner Runner, and instead cleverly focuses on the characters around the table, and the dark stories they are telling.
With an all-star cast that includes Ron Perlman, Titus Welliver, and Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, the film focuses on a newcomer to the Indiana Police department – Stan Jeter, a young, enthusiastic cop who is learning the ropes with the help of his older colleagues.
But that’s only if he wins. Every hand that Jeter (played by Awkward’s Beau Mirchoff) wins, one of the older guys must tell a tale of a murder case they’ve been involved in, which makes for a chilling, and in some cases rather hilarious, viewing.
The aging detectives not only teach the young gun the way of the world, but give him a lesson in hold’em, molding him into one of the guys that plays every week. Although this time, it’s unlikely he’ll need those skills with the long night ahead for the enthusiastic cop.
There’s a good mix in the cast around the poker table with Esposito channeling the mentality of the infamous Gus Fring at points throughout, while Welliver adds elements of humor to the story, creating a fairly good balance.
What’s more is that Jeter himself inserts himself into each story, although it is perhaps a little distracting and a case of director Greg Francis trying to be too clever – a theme which runs throughout the film.
Attempting to take a page out of Quentin Tarantino’s book, Poker Night lacks in structure, which is perhaps where it falls short a little. There’s an overuse of voiceover from Mirchoff, and it doesn’t quite let the story flow, particularly with the countless flashbacks breaking up scenes.
It’s saved however by the villain. It doesn’t take long for the cards to stop and the horror to creep in, and the character holding all the aces is certainly the sex-crazed serial killer played by Michael Eklund.
Moving the story on from poker fairly quickly, the plot turns dark and twisted, descending into a world of pedophilia and murder. Viciously attacking and abducting Jeter and his girlfriend (Halston Sage), Eklund, wearing a mask which wouldn’t look out of place in a Slipknot line up, frolics with Jeter taking him to his lair where he brutally attacks and taunts him.
It’s at that point where the flashbacks do work a little more, taking us into the reasoning behind the masked man’s brutal nature. With stories that include a clown and the Easter Bunny it borders on that dark, comedic humor again before dragging us back into the gritty, psychopathic character he’s grown into.
It drags you straight out of the poker side of the film, with the game itself being an entertaining sub-plot to take us into the action, particularly with the popularity of the sport at the moment. It almost adds an element of fashion to proceedings, as well as being a clever way to introduce all the characters around the table.
Of course Poker Night isn’t the first film to use poker in recent times, and of course follows the way of fashion. The rise of poker over the last few years is phenomenal. The likes of Runner Runner, The Grand, and even Casino Royale attest to its recent popularity, while Rounders 2 and a series of other poker movies are actually in the works.
Where Poker Night differs however is in the fact that the game is only a minor part of the film. While poker is integral, and the stories told around the table are invaluable to Jeter in his attempts to escape the masked man, nothing necessarily boils down to a raise or a fold.
In its essence, it’s a solid and enjoyable film. The characters are well-played and you can really buy into them as human beings, although perhaps they aren’t utilized the best they can be, and that’s where the movie no doubt falls short.
It’s organized chaos which loses a lot of drama and suspense through cutting into flashbacks which are often based on whimsy or slapstick moments. It fails to allow us time to get to grips with Jeter’s situation before jumping into another light-hearted story. It’s a movie in self-destruct mode.
And that’s the great tragedy of it. Turning the normal (a poker game – a game which millions of people sit around a table every week to play) into the paranormal with a masked psychotic killer is a good concept, and it’s cast pretty perfectly too.
The scenes of horror we do get while interrupted by flashbacks do have great potential and it’s certainly a solid start for director Greg Francis, who had only really only shot documentaries before. It’ll be interesting to see where he’ll go next; we’d certainly like to see him stay in horror because he’s clearly got an eye for it. A next effort with a simpler structure and less light-heartedness breaking up the tension, and we could see something really special from Francis.