After watching Rounders, I remembered how big Texas hold ’em was a few years ago. You couldn’t flip to a sports channel in the daytime without seeing the same few players going at one another over a game of poker that never seemed to end. What happened? It seemed to just about disappear overnight, and nowadays, I can’t even find a game to watch.
I think Matt Damon’s character, Mike, explains it best: It’s always the same people making it to the World Series of Poker every year. People get tired of that. Can you imagine if the same sports teams played for the championship every year? Sure, it would be exciting if you’re rooting for one of those teams, but everyone else would lose interest. It would be too predictable, the other teams would know they didn’t have a chance anyway, and nobody would continue to watch. Maybe that’s why poker is no longer on most of the sports channels.
It’s funny that Damon’s character complains about predictability, as Rounders is as predictable as they come. This is your sports comeback movie filtered through the minds of people who play poker for a living — or maybe just for fun. It begins with Mike going up against a Russian mobster named KGB (John Malkovich), using all of his money to get into the game, and promptly proceeding to blow it in one poorly judged wager. Devastated, we later meet up with Mike nine months later. He has quit the game, moved in with a girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), and promised he’ll never play cards again. He’s now in law school.
It’s precisely at this time that his friend, Worm (Edward Norton) is being released from jail. Before being imprisoned, Worm got into some pretty bad gambling debt. The day he gets out, he’s back at the cards table. Mike joins him, despite his important promise, and just like that, he’s back in the game for good. John Turturro also makes an appearance as Mike’s the-closest-thing-you-can-have-to-a-friend-at-the-poker-tables, while acting somewhat like a father to Mike.
So, yes, for most of the movie, we watch the characters playing poker while trying to earn back the money that Worm owes. It eventually comes down to a $15,000 loan that must be paid back within five days, effectively raising the stakes (so to speak) for the characters. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from movies, it’s that you don’t want to default on a debt that you have with Russian mobsters. You’ll regret it.
And if you figured that Rounders would come down to one match against the same man who took all of the money in our film’s opening scene, you’re right, and likely have little reason to watch the film if you’re primary reason for watching a movie is for its story. There aren’t any surprises here — you’ve seen everything before — and if you want originality, you’ll want to go elsewhere. Swap out boxer for poker player and ring for card table, and you can basically write the story for yourself.
What Rounders does write is capture the actual poker playing really well. When the characters are at the table, we often get Damon’s narration to explain what he’s thinking and why he knows (or thinks he knows) that he’s going to win. “It’s not about the hand you’re dealt — it’s how you play it.” Or, maybe: “You don’t play the cards — you play the man.” You know, the things that you hear people talk about yet don’t see happen in your Friday night poker game. Rounders works well when it’s all about the poker.
However, when it starts to bring in the craziness of Worm, his problems and how he gets Mike involved, we lose focus on what we want. Worm basically just gets to mess everything up while Mike tries to put it back together, which says to me that director John Dahl wanted to disguise the fact that it’s a comeback story. Adding in the “zany” character to give Mike some motivation works well, but he didn’t really seem like he needed a lot of pushing to get back in the game.
There is enough of the poker parts to keep us engaged, though. Whenever the cards were dealt, you try to figure out if Mike can win just like he is. When he doesn’t tell us what he’s thinking and what he thinks the other players are thinking, we’re searching to find the tells and discover who has the better hand. This gets more difficult as the film progresses, as he plays against a higher caliber of players, although he usually helps us along with the narration to help viewers who have never played poker before.
The actors are good, which helps defuse the tedium of the “character” scenes. Damon plays the conflicted, intelligent character who just wants to live a good life, while Norton is given the out-of-control, do-whatever-you-want type of guy. They play off one another well, although it seemed too often that Worm was either used as comic relief or disappeared for too long of a period to really be a factor. There’s no mistake here: Damon is the lead, and Norton is the supporting member. John Malkovich’s mobster is also funny, but terrifying at the same time. Turturro was underused, unfortunately.
Rounders is ultimately a fun film, although it never approaches must-watch territory because of its unoriginal story and poor characters. But the poker scenes, which dominate our time spent watching it, are quite enjoyable, especially if you already had an interest in the game. This is a sports comeback story with a poker player instead of professional athlete, although unlike most of these films, the “sport” in question is the most entertaining part.