John Hyams is mostly known for being an action movie director. His pair of Universal Soldier sequels - the great Regeneration and the masterfully strange Day of Reckoning - are high water marks in the DTV realm, both as savagely entertaining as they are ultraviolent and unsettling. In-between, Hyams made the lesser seen Dragon Eyes - a low budget JCVD/Cung Le vehicle that pitted these merciless masters of mayhem in an urban battle for supremacy. Unifying Hyams' works is an immaculate sense of environment and texture - cityscapes and storefronts becoming stages for brutal conflict (a sporting goods depot famously transforming into a gladiator arena in Day of Reckoning). It was a distinct knack for place that carried over from his work in TV - notably as a producer/director on NYPD Blue - immersing the audience in the blue-collar lumpiness of whatever metropolis he was currently demolishing.
All Square - Hyams' first feature in six years - is a significant departure from his last two pictures, yet contains all the hallmarks of the career workman's previous output. It probably helps that Hyams has spent that half-decade-plus working in television; writing, producing and directing episodes of Z Nation, Chicago Fire, and Chicago P.D. There's a sharpness to the working-class comedy's every frame, as he captures the story of John (Michael Kelly) - a down and out bookie who starts setting lines on Little League games after a run of bad luck - with a casual crispness that's never less than captivating (provided by Day of Reckoning cinematographer Yaron Levy). Baltimore becomes a character unto itself, as this Natty-swilling, passively sarcastic asshole whips his little corner of the city up into an utter frenzy, every father now screaming at the umpires because they've got their kids' college funds on the line, and the pitcher in question can barely throw a curve ball.
Michael Kelly has always possessed a rather captivating screen presence, having previously stolen numerous scenes in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, before becoming a television mainstay in series such as Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior and House of Cards. There's an angular aura the character actor injects into every one of his roles, and watching this local sports betting waystation befriend the benchwarmer son (Jesse Ray Sheps) of a former high school fling (Pamela Adlon) he drunkenly hooks up with again is an abject lesson in how not to become a role model. Letting the kid drink in bars before teaching him how to take a swing on his bullying teammates (he's a juvenile, after all, and "nothing counts" before eighteen), John becomes more of a shitty enabler than a genuine big brother. Yet there's still a tenderness the two share that's undeniable - the minor criminal finding a weird calling via these piss poor lessons in masculinity.
Of course, the bookie's ways fall under scrutiny from an apparent straight shooter (Josh Lucas), whose run for a seat in local government gifts him a sense of entitled oversight. Once this would-be leader starts looking into the betting man's new stream of revenue - which has resulted in violent feuds between parents and even one coach trying to rig a game - suddenly John’s returning the TV he stole from a hard case client who can't pay his debts, removing it from the kid's living room since he "can't seem to keep his mouth shut". Meanwhile, John's father (Harris Yulin) is not so quietly dying from cancer in the bookie’s home after spending a decade in jail for running a man over with his car; a reminder of the lonely future that faces this petty crook should he keep trying to collect on his fellow degenerates' pocket-draining addictions instead of joining Union pals like Scotty (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) on more legit jobs. First time screenwriter Timothy Brady's structure is sharp and insightful, every character beat building toward a larger communal picture, as these tavern-dwelling knuckleheads just try to get by with their souls intact.
If All Square stumbles slightly, it's in the third act, which takes a little too hard of a moralistic turn. Yet Hyams still has a few surprises in the final reel that feel true to these characters as we've come to know them. While they may not be throwing punches at one another, or flipping over their used pickup trucks after a car chase, he's still letting John inflict a good deal of emotional damage, even when the bookie doesn't seem fully aware of his actions' consequences. If anything, All Square is proof that Hyams is way more than just an "action movie director", and can work well with a talented ensemble of performers, while still exploring the surface of their universe with a documentarian's eye for East Coast life (look for more than one Wire cameo while you're watching). This is a solid little comedy - pitch black and packed with interesting details and exchanges that plunge you into these sheet rock hanging scumbags' world for ninety minutes, before they kick off and place a few more bets at the bar.
All Square will continue to screen at SXSW Tuesday, March 13th, at the Alamo Lamar (11:45 AM), and Thursday, March 15th, also at the Alamo Lamar (8:45 PM).