They say that you can tell a lot about someone by the way that they play poker – are they impetuous or more measured, can they hide their true feelings behind a veneer of calm or do “tells” give away their every emotion and intention?
This is just one of the themes behind the film Poker Night, part police procedural, part poker movie, part kidnap drama.
If you’re not familiar with the movie it was released in December 2014 and, despite a relatively small budget, featured a pretty starry cast. Probably the highest profile name was Ron Perlman, one of those actors whose face is instantly recognisable, even if you can’t exactly put a name to it. His previous credits include Bad Ass and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In Poker Night he plays a veteran cop Calabrese in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana who invites a new rookie Stan Jeter (played by Beau Merchoff of Awkward fame) along to a poker night for fellow officers. Other members of the cast include Giancarlo Esposito (The Jungle Book), Corey William Large (Toxic) and Titus Welliver (Transformers: Age of Extinction).
During the course of the game the different cops each tell Jeter a tale of a famous murder case that they have been able to solve in the course of their careers, each one of which contains a nugget of information that will later prove to be invaluable to him. As each story is told we see it being enacted in flashback, with Jeter imagining himself as part of the action. So, in this way, the movie has a certain similarity to classic portmanteau horror movies from the 1970 like Tales From The Crypt and Asylum and also, weirdly, to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in which a disparate group of pilgrims come to tell a series of stories.
At the end of the evening after the game’s wrapped up Jeter finds himself answering a domestic dispute call but is ambushed by a kidnapper played by Michael Eklund (See No Evil 2) who has also kidnapped the daughter of another cop’s daughter, Amy played by Halston sage (The Bling Ring). Using only his wits, and the advice he has received as part of the stories that he’s been told, Jeter must try to help himself and Amy escape from the evil and murderous clutches of their captor.
Poker players are often viewed as being at their most vulnerable when they are around the table, Poker Night plays on this; the film is centred on using poker in an interview-style environment. In addition to this, writer/director Greg Francis was undoubtedly aiming to play off the popularity of the game. After all, it’s also a game that has translated very well on to the screen in the past in films as diverse as Casino Royale and Cool Hand Luke and which serves the very useful cinematic purpose of being able to ratchet up the tension and conflict when required.
However, following its release the critics were generally quite dismissive of the film as well as the device of using the poker game to tell these different stories. In fact Variety went as far as to damn the film saying, “Poker Night offers a near-indigestible mix of tricky “Pulp Fiction”-esque structural convolution, torture-porn tropes and a somewhat distasteful level of snark, making for a self-satisfied puzzle that most viewers will run out of patience trying to unravel”. Ordinary viewers were hardly any more impressed, earning the movie a lowly 44% rating on the famous “tomatometer”. Maybe not the worst score of all time – that goes to films like Clowntergeist with a big fat zero – but not exactly a glowing accolade either.
The two key problems that were identified by the majority of critics were the structure of the film and its changing tone.
A key cause of the former was the reliance on flashbacks to tell the various stories, some of which, in turn, included their own flashbacks too which created the cinematic equivalent of disappearing through a large wormhole. With this structural flaw it gives the over-arching story very little chance to develop and gain momentum.
In terms of tone, there are elements of black humour included in the captor’s own backstory – again employing flashbacks – that seem totally at odds with the rest of the film and whose incongruousness also bring the action to a number of uncomfortable halts. There’s also the revelation that two of the poker playing cops had, in fact, died in the line of duty so there had even been ghosts at the table.
With all this in mind, it would seem very unlikely indeed whether anyone could be planning a sequel anytime soon. However, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that some director somewhere could try to re-make, or re-interpret, the original by straightening out the structural weaknesses and ensuring a consistency of tone.
Whether horror movie fans who are used to almost unlimited access to top class fare like It and Alien:Covenant – just two of the biggest hits of 2017- would be so keen to see this happen is open to debate.