Greg Francis’ Poker Night is a bloody little crime thriller bogged down by its serpentine plot. Its nonlinear narrative throws in numerous twists and turns (some clever, some far-fetched), but somewhere along the way any edge of suspense is trampled, never to be recovered. It’s like an anthology film whose frame story feels like it was ripped from another movie. Luckily, Poker Nights boasts a cast of serious badasses who manage to keep the film afloat as its plot frantically tries to pull it beneath the surface.
Journeyman actor Ron Perlman plays Detective Calabrese, a grizzled lawman who heads a weekly poker game with his cop buddies: Bernard (Giancarlo Esposito), Davis (Corey Large), Cunningham (Ron Eldard, in his first role since his amazing turn on Justified), and Maxwell (Titus Welliver). The new recruit to the table is Jeter (The Grudge 3’s Beau Mirchoff). He’s an ambitious but slightly arrogant rookie who’s yet to earn the respect of the men he’s playing with.
In between raises and folds, the men swap war stories. This is where the anthology vibe seeps in. They take turns telling tales of tough collars, with a nice mixture of humor, violence, and apathy towards the scum in the streets (man, why are cops so awesome in movies but generally suck in real life?). All this yarn spinning serves another purpose besides shits and giggles – they’re meant to educate Jeter. “It’s a time for rookies to listen and learn,” one of the vets tell him.
The stories are so enlightening to Jeter, he inserts himself into each one, ghosting his way through time in a playful, yet wholly distracting manner. The narrators turn and look at the cameras a few times as well, adding extra diversion. This type of stuff is cool sometimes, but in this case took me too far out of the frame narrative. The stories themselves are awesome and really fun (Titus Welliver’s Cruising-like tale is hilarious), but the insertion of Jeter is jarring at times, draining the energy from them.
The horror comes in the form of a masked psycho who viciously attacks and abducts Jeter and his girl (Halston Sage) after the poker game. The psycho’s vibe is half frolicsome, half member of Slipknot. He tilts his head a bunch, like masked killers tend to do in horror, and gets touchy-feely with Jeter at times. What’s it about wearing a mask that makes some guys get all fruity? He brings Jeter to his labyrinthine lair (a place Jigsaw would feel comfortable in), where he brutally taunts Jeter, who’s desperately trying to figure out who this goof is and how to escape with his head (and skin) still attached.
The masked man’s backstory is somewhat revealed through pastel-flavored flashbacks that include a clown and the Easter Bunny. The tone during these recollections is whimsical, clashing with the stark grittiness of the rest of the film. This tonal see-saw didn’t really work for me and sapped all the suspense previously built up.
Th is was my biggest problem. The tension is drained quite a few times in Poker Night. Nearly every time the film jumps back to the poker game then over to Jeter in bloody distress, the film just never manages to recover that feeling of anxiety it establishes early on. There is truly a lot to like in the film, particularly the performances and cop stories, but ultimately it builds itself up only to fizzle out in the end. Writer-director Greg Francis has a sharp-eye for horror, that’s obvious, so it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with next.