When you become a detective in Warsaw Indiana – you go to Poker Night, where you play against some of the best cops in the business. They tell you stories about their time on the job – their successes and failures. When new Detective Stan Jeter leaves the game, he is caught by a vicious psychopath and locked in a basement. Using the stories he heard at Poker Night, he must match wits against his captor – and save not only himself, but the young girl trapped in the basement with him. Like Seven and Usual Suspect, Poker Night combines thrills and twists and turns that will leave you guessing till the very end.
When we first meet him in Poker Night, Police Officer Jetter (Beau Mirchoff) is having the worst kind of day. Beaten, bloody and exhausted, he lies sprawled on the ground surrounded by armed police. To bring us fully up to speed on how he’s ended up in such a pickle, Writer/Director Greg Francis takes us gently by the hand and sticks it into the exposition meat grinder. It seems that Jetter has been singled out by a masked serial killer for violent retribution in a cellar with lots of nasty surprises. Some of them involving superglue. Lots of superglue.
Jetter has just become a detective and, by rites of passage, he’s invited to a poker night attended by the old school elite of his department, including Hellboy’s Ron Pearlman and Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito. They’re the kind of gnarled old men you want from a poker game full of hard-nosed detectives. The kind that eat nails for breakfast, drink bourbon for lunch and then probably fight each other in the evenings, slapping each other around and calling each other Shirley before collapsing and crying in each other’s arms. Probably. The point is, they’re world weary, angry men and if you’re going to have that, then you need Ron Perlman; a man who I love and hope will one day play Tom Waits in a biopic. Come on people, make it happen.
It’s on his way home from the poker night that Jetter is first pilfered by the friendly neighborhood psycho. Tortured and harassed, he ruminates on that game and the stories shared around the table. Reminiscing on their tales of do-gooding and takedowns, Jetter imagines himself in their position, tackling murders and drug pushers. Each recalled tale stoking the fire in him to want to escape. Often these play like an episode of Quantum Leap, as Mirchoff plays each cop recalling their past victories.
Working in the opposite fashion to this is our be-masked killer, played thrillingly by Micahel Eklund, who relays his origin story to Jetter in a wholly unreliable way. Our killer recalls his life as a simple family fan who decides one day to set fire to the world and kill anyone in the way of his perversions. It’s during his tale that Francis seems to having the most fun; his flashbacks running loudly back and forth like a four-year-old full of sugar. Poker Night’s dark humor comes out to play here as well as Ekland’s perverted friends – a furry and a clown – stalk the playgrounds looking for victims.
As mentioned, Ekland is on fire as he stalks the screen like the younger sibling of David Cronenbourg in Nightbreed. He is, without a doubt, the best part of Poker Night. Which is not to say the rest of the film isn’t any good, but it struggles to keep up with the anarchic pace he sets down. As time moved on, I found myself more drawn to life of a serial killer then whatever the outcome would be for our bound up hero. He was just that much more fun.
And then the third act twists come. So many twists, it’s like a yoga class. We have the rug pulled from beneath us so many times, it almost becomes an annoyance, and you wish the film would just stick to the beaten path. It’s not that they truly add anything to the narrative anyway; they simply illicit a minor ‘ooh’ and then it’s on to the next one. A film shouldn’t rely too much on flipping the script to keep you interested and Poker Night has kept our interest for this long that it feels redundant to play around with us anymore.
We’re on your side guys, you don’t need to keep impressing us. However, whilst its ending, and the run up to it, might not stand up to the preceding hour, Poker Night has enough on the table to warrant a viewing.