You can count the number of excellent pool movies on the fingers of one hand and still have a couple left over to hold the cue stick. There’s “The Hustler,” of course, and its sequel, “The Color of Money.” And then, there’s… Well, many people may have trouble even naming any third pool movie, let alone a memorable one. The latest effort at cinematic billiards, “Walkaway Joe,” isn’t memorable, and it’s certainly not excellent. But thanks to a couple of old pros in critical roles, it is decent viewing for those who can’t get to the local pool hall during the pandemic.
“Walkaway Joe” is a mix of pool movie and another, far more familiar genre, the coming-of-age film. Dallas (Julian Feder) is a 14-year-old budding pool hustler who helps his father Cal (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) fleece local bar players who underestimate the boy’s skills. Cal is a smooth talker and talented pool player, but not much of a husband or father. So, after another argument with his wife, he abruptly walks out on the family. Dallas sets out on his bicycle to find dad but runs into trouble when he tries a solo hustle in a bar. A sore loser threatens Dallas, who is saved by the intervention of a stranger named Joe (David Strathairn).
If you’ve ever seen a coming-of-age movie featuring a sorry excuse for a parent, you’ve seen a substitute father figure like Joe. After saving Dallas from a beat-down or worse, Joe gives the boy a ride to the big tournament where Cal will play. Along the way, he dispenses bits and pieces of wisdom to Dallas but proves just brusque and secretive enough to clue viewers in that he’s no saint. Dallas enters the pool tournament himself, and, not surprisingly, the championship matches him and his dad.
On paper, “Walkaway Joe” is a film with potential. Unfortunately, Julian Feder, who plays the pivotal role of Dallas, lacks the depth to keep up with his far more experienced co-stars. So, he basically mopes and sulks much of the time. The screenplay doesn’t help him out either. Cal is a stereotypical charmer with little of a moral compass. Joe is even more of a non-entity. The script gives him a mysterious past that Dallas eventually puts together. But the movie is not about Joe (despite the title). It’s about Cal and his journey toward adulthood, part of which involves helping Joe confront his past demons. Joe and Cal become little more than plot devices in service of a very familiar story.
That’s a shame because Jeffrey Dean Morgan and David Strathairn are both in their element here and deliver enjoyable performances. Cal has a lot in common with most Morgan characters, and the actor commands the screen in his scenes. Further, Strathairn is more low-key, in keeping with his more introverted characters. With lesser actors, “Walkaway Joe” could have been a disaster. With these two, it’s almost always watchable.
Of course, pool figures heavily in the storyline of “Walkaway Joe.” The game of choice is nine-ball, which Dallas explains to viewers in an opening-scene narrative. Pool fans will appreciate the various trick and difficult shots that appear in the film. Most of these shots occur in various montages, though. The movie lacks any genuine sense of drama about any match, even the tournament championship pitting Dallas and Cal.
Pool fans and Jeffrey Dean Morgan fans will probably enjoy “Walkaway Joe” more than most viewers will. It is about as memorable as watching a couple of bar regulars shoot a rack, and most of the plot developments are incredibly predictable. Still, I enjoyed seeing two old pros at the top of their game and various pool-playing extras whose skills far exceed my own. That cast is considerably better than what you’ll find in the average direct-to-video effort on Amazon Prime, so I’m giving “Walkaway Joe” a mild recommendation. Rack ‘em up.