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With: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, Goran Visnjic
Written by: David Levin, Brian Koppelman
Directed by: John Dahl
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong language, some sexuality and brief drug use
Running Time: 121
Date: 09/04/1998

Rounders (1998)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rounders, the fifth movie by John Dahl, is good enough to join his great double whammy from 1994; Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Other directors simply pay homage to film noir and their movies come across as copies or throwbacks, but Dahl's movies work because he seems to understand the inner workings of film noir, and the absurd situations that people can get into. Rounders feels like the real thing.

The hero of the movie is a skilled card player of the most extraordinary order; Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon. Mike is able to win any game of cards by reading faces, knowing the cards, and making it all seem easy. As the movie opens, Mike looks out of place--a clean cut kid in a dank basement clubhouse full of gangsters, hoodlums, and greaseballs. He's playing cards with the king of them all, Teddy KGB, (played by John Malkovich with a wild, lilting Russian accent). Dahl gets us on the inside of the game through his slick, casual, but obsessive camera--like a bystander trying to look cool but actually very involved. We watch as Mike bets everything he's got, and loses.

The lost money includes his tuition for law school -- his bid for normalcy. The movie never says so, but we get the impression that his girlfriend (played by Gretchen Mol) has helped him back on his feet. Nine months later, they're now live-in lovers, and law students together, only Mike is not allowed to play cards anymore. (This is where the movie turns into a film noir. No film noir character can ever escape the call of the underworld, no matter how much he denies it.) The catalyst is Mike's best friend Worm, played by the again-brilliant Edward Norton. Fresh out of jail, Worm immediately gets Mike to drive him to a card game. Mike tries to leave, but is pulled back by forces beyond his control. Worm tells him that he knew Mike would come back. "Your favorite actor is Clint Eastwood. He always doubles back for a pal." Mike uses his good name to start a tab for Worm, but it turns out Worm owes a lot of money. This brings us back to Teddy KGB. Mike is now in as much trouble as Worm, and together, they have a matter of days to raise $15,000 to save their lives.

This story is really old time stuff, but Dahl gives it a boost, not by using any twists or gimmicks, but because of his complete conviction in the material. The dialogue in Rounders is right on target. The talk sounds like real card players' talk, and there's no phony explaining of their slang to the audience. (For example, "juice", means interest on a loan.) They just talk and we figure it out for ourselves. Movies rarely give the audience credit for this kind of thinking. Rounders allows us to be guests in an authentic-feeling underworld, and our guide, Mike, is such an ordinary guy that we feel safe following him. As good looking as Damon is, he presents himself as a down-to-earth equal to the people around him, while at the same time, giving off an extraordinary aura.

Damon has good company in Rounders, which is cast with a wonderful gallery of character actors. Besides Malkovich, there is Martin Landau as Professor Petrovsky, in whom Mike confides. We instantly believe in Landau the moment we see him, even though his dialogue is limited to melancholy discussions about his decision to be a professor instead of a rabbi. John Turturro plays Joey Knish, a smooth gambler who took Mike under his wing and taught him control. Turturro speaks with a low soothing grumble, partially distanced, partially observing. Edward Norton, as Worm, establishes himself as one of the very best actors of his generation. The more we learn about Worm, the more we realize that he is only showing us a very convincing crazy-guy front, with just a hint of the hidden vulnerability and sadness of a guy who has been picked on all his life.

Even if the movie were just great dialogue, great performances, and an honest director, it would still be worth seeing. But Rounders is more. It may come across as a slick Hollywood machine, like The Color of Money, but, like that film, it achieves more by maneuvering into the unseen cracks and sleazy poetry of the world it shows us, and by its director's sincerity. Although it may seem impossible at first glance, Rounders is a Hollywood film with a personal vision, and not a faceless machine.

As part of their big 25th anniversary celebration, Miramax has re-released this underrated film in a new Special Edition, complete with a set-top game, a behind-the-scenes special, two featurettes: "Inside Professional Poker" and "Champion Poker Tips," plus two audio commentary tracks, one by the Dahl, the screenwriters and Norton, and one by professional poker players. In 2011, Lionsgate, which acquired Blu-Ray rights for some of the Miramax library, released a fine Blu-Ray edition, complete with all the extras from the special edition DVD.

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