The most appealing new American films of the year, "Hero at Large" and "Hide in Plain Sight," are astutely updated throwbacks.
So is "The Baltimore Bullet," a sportive trivality about the escapades of a dapper pool hustler, James Coburn, and his gauche protege, Bruce Boxleitner. But this throwback to the recently fagged-out tradition of buddy-buddy movies suggests that the genre needs a prolonged interment.
Coburn's character, Nick Casey, is nicknamed The Baltimore Bullet. The plot concerns his efforts to arrange a grudge match with his old nemesis, The Deacon -- an elegant gambling man played by Omar Sharif, who regards Nick as a talented rival who "can't shoot for the big cash."
Before bringing these nicknames together on the field of play, the scenario cruises and lollygags around, sustaining itself of delaying actions: Jack O'Halloran is introduced as a sore loser out to assassinate Sharif. Coburn's young buddy, Billie Joe, is depicted as an overgrown boy whose impulsiveness keeps him and Nick in hot water. The story is spun out so carelessly that climactic pool matches between Nick and Billie Joe and then Nick and The Deacon are reduced to anticlimactic throwaways.
There is some slick, beautifully edited pool playing -- indeed, this footage is the film's only touch of class -- but it's all prelims. The consummation we're supposedly waiting for never quite materializes.
The movie is not without its fleeting, gratuitous charms. Willie Mosconi is a deadpan scream as the expert commentator during a televised match, dutifully articulating lines like "This shot is almost impossible to make -- I've never heard it called in tournament pool" and "That's a tough break -- Nick's in trouble." Ronee Blakley turns up in cheerful form and lovely voice, singing one of her ballads at a country & western club. If the film weren't such an infantile example of the buddy-buddy syndrome, she might even have functioned as a desirable Romantic Interest.
"Bullet" restricts her to chaste cheerleading and coaching from the sidelines. "Will you guys stop it!You're sounding like a couple of kids," she pleads with Nick and Billie Joe at one point, in a speaking voice almost as amateurish as Willie Mosconi's.
Although "sexist" is one of the words I happen to detest, it seems appropriate for the outrageous, maybe even downright insulting approach to the opposite sex favored by sidekicks Coburn and Boxleitner in this picture. The sex jokes are nothing if not anachronistic. Coburn patronizes a buxom blonde dumbbell played by Cissie Cameron, whose big scene is bending over a pool table with the cue gripped under her overflowing breasts. This oblivious plaything is called Sugar. Gallantly assisting her with the cue, Coburn advises, "Go down on your stick, Sugar."
Later, Boxleitner and Coburn get into a dispute about the endowments of a waitress who has just bent over their table while taking their orders. To settle a bet, Boxleitner marches into the kitchen for a test squeeze. A surprised shriek. Unseen dishes crash, Boxleitner returns, having satisfied himself that the merchandise was authentic.
I have a discouraging suspicion that "The Baltimore Bullet" may become a grass-roots moneymaker by dragging rickety wheezes out of the closet. Far from purging the culture of such masculine presumption, Women's Lib may have succeeded only in creating a new set of conventions, which may or may not have competitive staying power.
Before "The Baltimore Bullet," it never occurred to me that anyone in the movie business would care to backslide to patsies as blatant as Sugar. Now I'm inclined to believe the film may be a reactionary touchstone. Even Coburn's "Flint" series was more grown-up.
It's interesting to observe that while no lewd jokes are made about Ronee Blakeley's character, she's not developed into a romantic match for the would-be virile, eligible hustlers either. Obviously, she transcends mere sexual ornamentation and would break up the set if seriously integrated into this adolescent fantasy. "I'm gonna miss her," Boxleitner remarks to Coburn at the fadeout. That may be the funniest line in the show.