Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich
Directed by: John Dahl
Rated: R for pervasive strong language, some sexuality and brief drug use
Movie Released: 1998
Long before the poker craze that hijacked the cable networks in the last 5 years, director John Dahl set out to bring to life the gritty underground world of high stakes poker in his film Rounders. Sure, at the time everyone knew about The World Series of Poker, but the stations weren’t clogged with celebrity poker games forcing viewers to watch Matthew “Chandler” Perry drive his career into the ground as he played his hands in these cheaply produced poker shows of yester-year. Rounders, was one of the films that pre-cursored the poker re-surgance, and this forgoten high stakes poker flick was The Hustler of poker movies back in 1998.
Starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, Rounders tells the tale of a young law student, Mike (Matt Damon) that has an eye for poker. The young card shark can read anyone blind when he walks into a room, but gives it all up after losing it all to Russian bookie (John Malkovich) who has ties to the Russian mob. But when his old friend, Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison and finds himself in a sea of old gambling debts, Mike steps back into the game to help his friend get his head above water once more.
The reason I enjoy this film so much is the performances by the fine actors in this film. Damon, coming off his Good Will Hunting fame proves again as a young actor why he deserves to be the star he is today. Along side of Damon, Edward Norton steps in as his card cheat buddy, Worm in a performance that was the pre-cursor to his Oscar nominated performance in American History X. Rounders fits in nicely between the [at the time] young actor’s two Academy Award recognized performances (American History x (1998) and Primal Fear (1996)) and while Norton doesn’t exactly put on an Oscar worthy performance, he brings life to the dirt bag, best friend that you love to hate. And of course, to top it all off you have a solid performance by John Malkovich as the oreo eating, high stakes gambling booking with an accent that is so silly that it’s hard not to laugh. Malkovich in fact, may be one of the best parts of the film. His role as Kenny KGB is probably the standout performance of the film and most likely will have you you attempting to recreate his accent every time you say “Pay that man his money!” for the rest of your days.
Director John Dahl finds a way of making runs on the poker table as exciting as any sporting event there is. Even the person who has never played poker in their life could pick up a copy of Rounders and find themselves sucked into the action. But despite the film’s poker core, what makes Rounders special is the story that surrounds the card games. Rounders is a tale of old friendships, risking it all, and dealing with the cards life gives you- no matter the outcome.
If the plot line and the list of A-list actors don’t intrigue you enough to put Rounders on your rental list, from a technical standpoint Rounders is a very well made, concise movie. From start to finish, Dahl brings to life the gritty underground tables and the glitz and glam of the Atlantic City high stakes tables. The cinematography is well thought out and each shot seamlessly sets up the action on screen. As a viewer, you begin to feel like you are in the room with Damon playing each hand and dealing with the building suspense.
Where Rounders may go wrong is the voice over narration of Damon’s character, Mike. In many aspects this works well, it helps give Damon’s character depth and helps explain some of the rising action through out the plot line with a detail you just wouldn’t get otherwise. But in an attempt to make Mike’s life parallel to the poker world he surrounds himself in, too many cliched lines from poker manuals are used. Mike is constantly using some clever poker champs quotes to sum up his next move on the table and in life, rattling them off the top of his head like an obsessed poker fanatic. The first few times this pops up in the film, you think nothing of it, but the quotes are soon overdone and become infused in the voice overs, taking away from the film over all.
If you haven’t seen Rounders, it’s a film I highly suggest you check out. It’s filled with strong performances by a great cast and has a story that sucks you in. Rounders is to poker as Rocky is to boxing, The Hustler is to pool and Over The Top is to arm wrestling (except Rounders is missing arm wrestling!). Check it out, you’ll be glad you did.