Stickmen

In its opening moments, Stickmen visually equates a game of pool with a vigorous sex act, and before that particular bit of hyperbole can sink in, the filmmakers raise the stakes by having a character actually choose pool over sex. Stickmen's characters unselfconsciously take this sort of statement at face value, but the message about their philosophy is so broad and so vehemently overstated that it becomes funny. That dynamic is repeated over and over throughout Stickmen, a grimy-looking comic thriller made in New Zealand by first-time feature director Hamish Rothwell and first-time novelist/screenwriter Nick Ward, both of whom borrow excessively from more creative creators, but still eke laughs from their cast's obliviously overstated energy. Stickmen follows three pub-fixture pool players who allow themselves to get drafted into an illegal underground pool tournament run by hook-handed local heavy Enrico Mammarella. While playing qualifying matches against a series of stereotypes (a swishy gay couple, a pair of priests, a pierced and blond-dreadlocked punk thug), one of the trio (Paolo Rotondo) blunders through the opening stages of a relationship with a friendly waitress, whose conniving friend is seducing a second member of the group (Robbie Magasiva). Simultaneously, the third member (Scott Wills) becomes a driver and escort for a low-rent local call-girl service. Wills' misadventures are mostly irrelevant to Stickmen's lovable-losers-make-good plot, but they're one more momentum-maintaining distraction among the Magic 8-Ball-themed intertitles, chapter-introduction lectures by one of Mammarella's hired thugs (Kirk Torrance), film homages (to Men In Black and The Color Of Money, among others), and more. Still, when they aren't struggling to maintain a manic pace, Rothwell and Ward get a lot of mileage from the collective charisma of Rotondo, Magasiva, and Wills, whose alcohol-soaked, contemptuously chummy dynamic mirrors that of similar lowlifers in similarly jangling movies like Trainspotting and Snatch. Their relationship is pure bar-buddy cliché, from their boastful banter to the well-worn jokes that they tell as though they've just invented them, but their relationship feels lived-in and vital. So does Stickmen's run-down version of Wellington, New Zealand, which makes any personal victory seem simultaneously earth-shattering and appropriately small and grubby. Stickmen steals many of its successes from earlier films, but it's loaded with charming humor and its own sense of intimacy. It does imply that pool is better than sex, but only because both acts amount to large-scale diversions in a life lived on a small scale.

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