James Coburn was one of those actors who improved any film in which he appeared in. Take The Baltimore Bullet, for example. Without Coburn, The Baltimore Bullet is basically The Hustler without any of that film’s grit or edginess. With Coburn, it’s still a bad remake of The Hustler but at least it’s got James Coburn.
Coburn plays Nick Casey, who was once known as The Baltimore Bullet. He was the top pool player in the country but now, he makes a meager but enjoyable living traveling the country with his protegee, Billie Joe Robbins (Bruce Boxleitner), and hustling people out of their money. Nick’s plan is to raise enough money so that he and Billie Joe can go down to New Orleans, enter the national pool championship, and defeat the reigning champion, a man known only as the Deacon (Omar Sharif). The episodic film follows Nick and Billie Joe as they travel across the country, having comedic adventures and trying to stay one step ahead of all of the people that they’ve cheated. Along the way, they pick up an aspiring country singer named Carolina Red (Ronee Blakley, who somehow went from her Oscar-nominated debut in Nashville to this).
The Baltimore Bullet doesn’t work for any number of reasons. A big problem is that Nick and Billie Joe’s friendship never really makes sense. There’s no real reason for Nick to need a protegee and Billie Joe often seems to be more interested in playing poker than playing pool. We never understand why Nick would take someone as erratic as Billie Joe under his wing. Another problem is that The Deacon never seems like a formidable opponent. He’s just Omar Sharif, looking bored and carrying a pool cue. Because we don’t like Billie Joe and don’t care about the Deacon, we don’t really care who wins the tournament. Probably the most interesting thing about The Baltimore Bullet is that, while it was obviously meant to be a rip-off of The Hustler, its plot, with a veteran hustler teaming up with a callow protegee, actually has more in common with The Hustler‘s sequel, The Color of Money (which would be released 6 years after The Baltimore Bullet).
All of that almost doesn’t matter, though, just because James Coburn’s in the movie. James Coburn always came across like the coolest human being on the planet, even in something like The Baltimore Bullet. There’s not much depth to Nick as a character but Coburn plays the role with a gleam in his eyes and a leer that looks like it belongs on the face of a cartoon wolf and it’s impossible not to like him. While everyone else is struggling with the bad dialogue and their inconsistent characters, Coburn looks like he’s having the time of his life. Coburn was an actor who was incapable of giving a bad performance and he’s the main reason to see The Baltimore Bullet.