Poker Run (Julian Higgins, 2009)
The first thing I thought while watching Poker Run, a few shots into the movie, was “holy shit! Is that Bertie Higgins?” And indeed, the crooner of such early-eighties hits as “Key Largo” and “Just Another Day in Paradise” is, in fact, one of the male leads in this otherwise completely forgettable attempt at a thriller. (Writer/director Julian Higgins, it turns out, is Bertie’s son.) Unfortunately, none of Bertie Higgins’ songs are in the movie, which would have made it… well, okay, not cooler. “Key Largo” hasn’t been cool since before Julian was born. But more distinctive, surely.
Plot: Robert (Higgins) and Allen (J. D. Rudometkin, recently of Beast Beneath) are a couple of weekend-warrior lawyers who take their wives out to the desert for a poker run (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s a bike race where each participant is handed a random card at five pre-determined stops along the way—at the end of the race, the person holding the best poker hand wins the money in a side pot to which all the racers contribute). They get involved in an argument with the proprietor of an out-of-the-way bike shop, and while cooling their heels and tempers at a bar next door, they’re approached by a couple of locals who offer them an under-the-table deal for a better bike than they were trying to buy—and in the process attempting to convince them that they can provide more fun over the weekend than any silly poker run can. Here’s a rule of thumb, if you ever find yourself in a movie—any time a couple of hinky-looking guys who never stop staring at your trophy wives are trying to convince you that you will have more fun with them than you would doing what you were planning on doing, they’re lying.
I might have been willing to give this a pass had Higgins (either one of ’em, really) attempted to do anything new with the torture-porn-lite subgenre of thrillers, but there is nothing here you haven’t seen before. I will give Higgins that at least he’s identifiably pulling from the genre’s classics (The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, Saw, Turistas…) rather than simply regurgitating things that have become generic clichés over the past decade, but that’ll only get you so far if you’re not a really, really good filmmaker with a distinctive style, and Julian Higgins is not that, at least not yet. Still, he’s young, and if you consider this an apprentice effort, it’s possible to imagine that he’s going to learn from the mistakes here, strike out in his own direction rather than continuing to be derivative, and sometime relatively soon he may come up with something much better than this. * ½
The distributor trailer (it’s longer).