Rounders (1998)

Rounders (1998)
  • Time: 121 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama
  • Director: John Dahl
  • Cast: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, John Turturro, Famke Janssen


John Dahl directed this exploration of New York private clubs devoted to high-stakes poker, with first-person narration from the film’s central figure, law student Mike McDermott, who loses his entire savings to Russian club owner Teddy KGB. Mike then turns away from cards, devoting his attentions to his law studies and his live-in girlfriend Jo, who’s concerned when Mike’s former gambling buddy Worm is released from prison. She has good reason to worry, since it takes Worm only a matter of minutes to draw Mike back into poker action. When she learns Mike has returned to the poker clubs, she moves out, and Mike begins to lose interest in his studies. Worm has a pre-prison debt, and the threatening Grama wants the money. Mike not only indulges the irresponsible Worm, he gets involved in Worm’s debts. When Grama demands $15,000 on a five-day deadline, the two buddies go into high gear with a non-stop, no-sleep gambling binge that spirals downward toward an ultimate confrontation with Teddy KGB.

One comment

  • “Listen, here’s the thing,” Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) confides in voiceover at the opening moments of Rounders, “If you can’t spot the sucker the first half hour, then you’re the sucker.” What a gutsy line for any film for we the viewers could be the unintentional suckers and that line not only serves as evidence that the filmmakers know they were putting one over on us, but that it’s our fault we are suckered. Here’s the thing: Rounders is good. Not supremely good, but certainly engaging.

    The sucker in question is Mike McDermott, law student and rounder (a card player, one who knows all the angles). Feeling flush, he decides to gamble with his tuition money and go for one big score against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a dangerous card shark with ties to the Russian mob. The maneuverings of their game are detailed in Mike’s rhythmic voiceover; the voiceover at this point is a necessity because (a) the audience has no clue why these moves are significant and (b) we get a chance to hear the lingo of the card players. Mike bets it all but KGB has the winning hand. Mike is wiped out.

    Nine months later, Mike is supporting himself by driving a delivery truck for Joey Knish (John Turturro), his friend and former poker guide. Retired from the game, Mike meets up with former poker partner and recently released convict Worm (Edward Norton). Both Joey and Mike’s girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) smell trouble. Despite their warnings and his better judgement, Mike finds himself falling back into the game. When Worm starts his self-destructive ways and gets them in money trouble, they must hit all the card games to raise 15 grand in three days before the Russian mob gets their hands on them.

    Rounders doesn’t have the moody kick that John Dahl’s previous noirs, The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, did but it does have a noirish brood nonetheless. Dahl puts in all the right ingredients: back alleys, smoky streets, brick walls, peeling paint; New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City shown in deep, rich reds and gradations of black. One set piece, a topless bar, has halls wallpapered with thousands upon thousands of pictures of barenaked ladies.

    Then there are the actors. Mol is refreshingly lovely but isn’t given much to do so I’m not quite sure what she is capable of. Famke Janssen as Petra, a Russian enchantress who runs a poker club, is a plus. Over the years, this former model has proven herself to be a surprisingly strong and versatile actress in not-too-strong vehicles (Goldeneye, Lord of Illusions, Deep Rising, City of Industry). She puts the moves on Damon in one scene and it makes you wish something more would have been made from it. Dahl would do well to cast her in a noir on par with The Last Seduction.

    Turturro and Malkovich are as good as ever and it’s a particular joy to hear Malkovich adopt a thick Russian accent. Martin Landau also appears, briefly but effectively, as Mike’s law professor and Michael Rispoli is intimidating as Worm’s former underling turned most threatening enemy, Grama.

    In the center of this cauldron of established talent, there are the two young guns: Damon and Norton. The former is an Oscar-winning screenwriter who has become Hollywood’s latest golden boy. Rounders is his first role since his breakthrough success with Good Will Hunting (he was already cast in Saving Private Ryan before Good Will Hunting’s release) and, though he has established himself as an actor to contend with in Courage Under Fire, he is starting from scratch. He is no longer Damon the actor, he is Damon the star. (If Good Will Hunting had been made today, he and cowriter Ben Affleck most likely would be criticized for their hubris rather than praised for their initiative.) For a while in Rounders, the stardom glow distracts; amidst his shadowy surroundings, he’s like a canary in a coal mine. Does he deliver a performance? Yes. Is it a good one? Yes and no. Yes, because he does well in small moments such as his reaction at being left by Mol or his growing concern at Worm’s reliability. He’s certainly very good during the pivotal showdowns at the card tables, but his performance recalls too much of the upstanding neophyte lawyer he portrayed in The Rainmaker. I don’t deny that it takes a significant talent to be the moral backbone of a film without coming off as boring, but I do object to recycling performances.

    His scenes with Landau also prove that he has a long way to go before reaching the level of Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp’s acting abilities. When Cruise worked opposite Paul Newman in The Color of Money, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, he proved himself up to their standards. Depp proved the same when he teamed with Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco, Marlon Brando in Don Juan de Marco and Landau in Ed Wood. Cruise and Depp collaborated with their costars; the veterans brought out the best in the rookies and vice versa. Damon, on the other hand, defers to his elders, a trait which may be proper etiquette offscreen but certainly not onscreen.

    As Worm, Norton looks and acts nothing like the Appalachian choirboy nor his murderous counterpart in his Oscar-nominated turn in Primal Fear (one of the best debuts ever in the cinema); or the lovestruck yuppie in Everyone Says I Love You; or the much beleaguered attorney in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Those performances were given in the span of one year. It’s been about a year since we’ve seen Norton onscreen and he’s as strong as ever. Reckless and sleazy, Worm burns bridges at both ends and lives for the score, no matter who the opponent. Norton acts circles around Damon. Even if the two had switched roles and Damon had the showier part, Norton would still outact him.

    Screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman could have made Mike’s reluctant re-entry into the life a little nastier. What if the whole deal with Worm’s debt was a calculated ploy to corrupt Mike? What if there was never any danger at all and everyone just wanted to pull him back down in the gutter? And why can’t the hero go out in a blaze of glory by losing? Winning the game isn’t necessarily a happy ending for a noir hero. It’s too straight, there’s no grace in it, which is why I liked Teddy KGB’s reaction to being beaten fair and square. Despite his bitterness, he lets his opponent leave with the money he’s rightfully won. That is the moral code of a noir hero. A noir hero is always tainted, always broken down, going for it all and losing big. Maybe he gets the dame he wants, maybe he gets the dame he deserves, but he always gets dirty.

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