Round up a handful of top drawer character actors, cast them as veteran cops who gather to pass on the wisdom of their years to a single new recruit during weekly poker games, and have then new detective draw on their stories — “lessons” — during a harrowing showdown with a serial killer.
That’s the premise behind “Poker Night,” a solid and well-acted if overlong and overly tricky thriller from Greg Francis, a TV veteran with such shows as “A Haunting” among his credits.
Beau Mirchoff of TV’s “Awkward” is Stan Jeter, the hero/narrator of this grisly tale. We meet him, bloodied, collapsing on the ground at what we figure is the end of some ordeal, narrating about the differences between wisdom and hindsight.
“Here’s the problem with wisdom,” he says. “You only get it AFTER you need it.”
Det. Jeter works for the Warsaw (U.S.) P.D., which is trying to find a shortcut to wisdom. The force has all these grizzled cops from all over the country. Foul-mouthed, two-fisted and incorruptible, they’re played by the likes of Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito and Ron Eldard. During their poker nights, each tells stories — flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks — of some telling case from their past, a lesson Jeter needs to learn to keep him alive on the job and help him solve his most difficult cases.
These lessons involve serial killers or simple murderers each has pursued, doggedly, for years, and the strategies employed in tripping up the bad guy and keeping him from killing whoever was chasing him as they did.
All manner of (movie) killer was faced down — a kid accused of murdering his parents is the case Esposito’s cop solved, the most interesting of the flashbacks.
But in the fictive present, Stan has left the game, gone on a call and seen a terrorized and underclothed young woman (Halston Sage) sprinting through the dark. Stan is tased, tied up and face to mask with a monster-masked kidnapper, a smooth-talking villain who tells his own story in flashbacks, the “normal” life with the “normal” wife and office job. The joke here is that his flashbacks show him in this leathery mask, which is the only way Stan knows him.
Stan must use what he’s learned on his own, and from the various lessons of his elders (Titus Welliver and Corey Large are the other poker players) to survive this ordeal, reason it out and find a way to turn the tables on his captor, who it turns out is a serial killer.
Writer-director Francis stages passable chases and shootouts, and spares us little of the gore of these gruesome killings by gruesome killers. A clever touch, transforming the aged cop telling the story into young Stan in the flashbacks, which are shot in washed-out colors, either over-exposed or underexposed and dark.
But Francis outsmarts himself, groping around for twists to toss our way, losing track of the clean lesson-to-its-application throughline of the plot. With so many flashbacks, even he seems to lose the thread, and he veers sharply in the end to try and defy our expectations one last time, utterly violating the logic of this “world.”
The players are good, with Mirchoff earnest and young as a nice contrast to the salty, rough-and-tumble elders, especially the iconic screen heavy, Perlman.
It’s just that when the last card is dealt on this “Poker Night,” Francis isn’t content to let the best hand win.
Cast: Beau Mirchoff, Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, Halston Sage, Ron Eldard, Titus Welliver, Michael Eklund
Credits: Written and directed by Greg Francis. An XLRator Media release.
Running time: 1:44