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The Baltimore Bullet
(1980)

Director: Robert Ellis Miller
Cast:
James Coburn, Omar Sharif, Bruce Boxleitner


If you have poked around this web site for a considerable amount of time, more likely than not you have come to the conclusion that this reviewer certainly knows his stuff, at least when it comes to movies. This conclusion may have got you to thinking certain questions, questions like, "How should I bow if ever I were to cross paths with this guy in the streets?" I'm just kidding, of course. Most likely the question that readers of this web site come to thinking is, "How did this guy manage to know so much about movies?" I'll answer that question now. Though I would give credit if credit were due, the simple truth is that I pretty much did it all myself. True, I did get some minor assistance here and there - for example, my mother, bless her, would often rent B movies during her shopping trips in town, and bring them back so I could watch and enjoy them. Though these movies were movies I would have seen myself sooner or later, so I don't know if that counts. When I think back as far as I can remember, I realize that my knowledge of movies was built by myself. First, I can remember looking forward to the weekends, when the television stations we got on the family TV would show various movies. Later, when video stores started to appear in my town, I would go to them and spend hours reading the various video boxes. When my family finally got a VCR, I used the knowledge that I had acquired up to that moment to rent movies of various genres. Watching the movies, I learned even more about the art form of film. It was around this time that I would go to the library or the local book stores looking for literature about film, and I must have read and absorbed dozens of books.

I kept up reading movie books and watching movies for years, and when the Internet came along, I added my use of that tool to gaining even more film knowledge. Even today, I am constantly reading and watching to learn more and flex my movie knowledge muscles. So as you can see, I pretty much did it on my own. Sometimes, though, I wonder what it would have been like if when growing up I had some kind of mentor. What if I had known someone with an equal love of cinema and a lot more knowledge than I had on the subject at the time? Well, it possibly would have speeded up my gaining movie knowledge a lot quicker. But I can't be sure, since believe it or not, I have never been a movie mentor in real life. I have had the opportunity. As I look out the window as I type this, I see several people across the street in the rain just standing there, looking on. Whenever I go out, they get on their knees and utter, "Master!", just like in those kung fu movies. Sometimes I consider inviting them in and start training them, but what stops me is that even with all my film knowledge, I don't know how to train someone to have as much knowledge and love of movies as I do. Sure, there are a few easy things I could teach. While grade school taught us "The Three 'R's", I would teach my students about "The Three 'C's" - the Cs being "Corman", "Cannon", and "Canadian Films Suck". Apart from some things such as that, though, I wouldn't know how to be a mentor. I think in my area of expertise, love and knowledge of movies can't be forced upon a person. It's something that you have to have instant interest in, and spend willingly hours upon hours learning for yourself. There may be mistakes one will make during the journey (like being unfortunate enough to watch a Lorenzo Lamas movie), but mistakes are part of the self learning process.

So maybe the best work I could make someone do who wants to be as knowledgeable about movies as I am would be to advise them to be open and observe everything movie related - especially my web site. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful. Certainly, I have watched many movies over The Baltimore Bulletthe years about teachers of various skills and the students who learn from these teachers. But they haven't been of much help, since the training that's depicted in these movies almost always seems to be greatly exaggerated. But even though these movies don't give much help as how to be a mentor in real life, I often find these movies fun. It's satisfying seeing someone build themselves from being poor at a certain skill to being confident and knowledgeable. Other things about these movies can be fun as well. When I found a copy of The Baltimore Bullet, there were several things about it that appealed to me besides being about a mentor and a student. One thing of course it being an unknown movie, but even more interesting about it was its cast - James Coburn (Crossover), Omar Sharif (Heaven Before I Die), and Bruce Boxleitner (Babylon 5). That's certainly not an everyday actor combination. The title of the movie refers to Coburn's character, a fellow also known by the name of Nick Casey. Casey was once one of the championship pool players in America, but various circumstances happened that now have him on hard times, and now he barely makes a living using his skill at pool while hustling unsuspecting fellow pool players across the country. But Casey has by his side Boxleitner's character, a young man by the name of Billie Joe Robbins. Casey years earlier saw that Robbins had a talent for pool, and offered Robbins a partnership where he would learn from Casey while the two of them travel across the country hustling various suckers. It is Casey's ultimate hope that they will earn enough money so that Casey can enter a championship pool tournament in New Orleans and defeat the country's current champion, a man simply known as "The Deacon" (Sharif). But Casey faces the problem that his young apprentice is a very unpredictable young man that gets them in hot water on more than one occasion, and that his apprentice may suddenly turn on his teacher.

Before I get into analyzing The Baltimore Bullet, I feel I should confess that while the cast and unknown nature of the movie appealed to me, there was also a part of me that approached the movie with prejudice. And that was the fact that the movie dealt with the game of pool, a game that I greatly dislike. Not just because I'm no good at playing the game, but that I even find watching others play the game to be boring. Also, with this movie being a comedy, it seemed unlikely Coburn would be the kind of mentor he was five years earlier in Hard Times - unless he would teach about smashing pool cues on people's heads. Neverless, I gritted my teeth and sat down to watch the movie. But as it turned out, I shouldn't have worried so much about having to watch pool, since there is much less pool playing in the movie than you might think. Believe it or not, in the first two-thirds of the movie, there is pretty much no pool playing seen at all. Oh, there are a few (very) brief scenes of various characters making a quick shot or two, but that's it. The movie seems to be trying very hard for the longest time to not showcase the sport, even by having one key pool hustle sequence take place completely offscreen. And when the movie does finally get to show more of the sport, what we see isn't worth the wait. Yes, there are a few mildly impressive trick shots seen - some clearly made by the actors themselves and not by doubles - but most of the various shots don't seem to be all that impressive. I was saying to myself for many of the shots, "I could do that move," and more likely than not you'll be saying that same thing yourself.

The Baltimore Bullet doesn't just cheapen out when it comes to showcasing the sport of pool, it also cheapens out in other aspects. Specifically, the look of the movie. Though this movie was made for theaters (and was picked up by a fairly large Hollywood distributor at the time), the movie is missing the "oomph" found in your average theatrical movie. It came as no surprise that when I did research on the movie, I found out that director Robert Ellis Miller (Brenda Starr) spent most of his career directing television productions. There is a flat and cheap feeling to the entire enterprise, like with the climatic pool tournament that takes places in a small room with the unfolding score written on a chalkboard despite the tournament being filmed by a major television network. Despite the low rent look and the curious reluctance to showcase the sport the main characters are interested in, the movie still could have been saved by the screenplay and the cast. After all, the story is more about people than some silly sport. I have to admit that James Coburn and Bruce Boxleitner in their roles do give the movie some appeal, even though it seemed at times that they were phoning their performances in. Though not going all out, Coburn is neverless smooth and slick, flashes his trademark pearly whites numerous times, and he does make you believe that his character is one tricky dude who knows his craft very well despite not getting to see his craft that much. Boxleitner has the tricky task of making his character, written to be in some regards foolish and naive (he has a gambling addiction), to be all the same likable, and he actually does pretty well, even when his character does stuff like gamble his mentor's expensive car away. And when both actors are in a scene, there is some genuine chemistry generated. Both of their characters seem comfortable and familiar with each other enough that you can believe they have some sort of a long term deep relationship.

But as it turns out, both Coburn and Boxleitner do more for the movie than the movie does for them. Their characters may have some charm, but they don't have that much depth to them. One problem is that the movie seems to start at chapter four or five. We never see how the characters of Nick Casey and Billie Joe Robbins met, and how Nick trained his student - all of that is (very quickly) told to the audience in a few seconds instead of shown at length. These are thin characters. So for that matter is their adversary, The Deacon. It's no wonder actor Omar Sharif doesn't seem very enthusiastic in this role; he only has a limited number of scenes, and in none of these scenes is he written to come across as a guy who you'd like to see get his comeuppance. It's also curious as to why the movie starts a subplot about an ex-con (Jack O'Halloran, Superman) who wants to assassinate The Deacon, then suddenly forgets about this and abruptly inserts this assassin into a half-baked plot about wanting to rob the establishment holding the climatic pool tournament. Maybe had the movie succeeded in its last possible way to entertain the audience - by being funny - I could have forgiven such bad writing and shallow characters. Sad to say, The Baltimore Bullet doesn't even succeed with delivering humor. You can tell a number of scenes were meant to be funny, but they aren't, mainly because there is such a low feeling of energy from scene to scene. I guess the blame has to fall on director Miller's shoulders for this, though I don't see that anyone could try to pass onto his cast a screenplay that is so underwritten. How underwritten is it? Well, there is the inevitable pool showdown between the characters of Nick Casey and The Deacon at the climax, but true to the movie's reluctance to showcase the game of pool at all, we don't get to see the winner (guess who) recovering from a bad start and managing to catch up and win. Instead, the movie cuts from the bad start to several minutes after the game finishes. That's right - we in the audience are cheated by not getting to see the underdog actually win! And in this spirit of the movie, I will end this review by recommending you give The Baltimore Bullet the same treatment, by choosing to make it unseen in any part by you.

(Posted February 19, 2019)

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See also: Crossover, Detective School Dropouts, Real Men

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