Courtesy Photo
105 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 11, 1998
Directed by John Dahl

Starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Martin Landau & Famke Janssen


Some fancy cinematography that helps give the poker scenes vitality won't come across as well on the small screen without wide screen format, but story is character-driven, so make sure the picture is big enough to read faces.

Gambling picture enjoyable but falls back on the banal

"Rounders" is a movie in which the central character is not nearly as fascinating as the fringe players that surround him.

This isn't a knock on Matt Damon who, as the central character, plays a reformed gambler who turned his attention to law school after overconfidence led to a $30,000 loss at an underground poker game of high rollers.

Damon is well cast as a wily poker savant dragged -- although he hardly fights it -- back into a hazardous world of clandestine card rooms to save a cheating washout of a friend from a deep loses at the tables that have him in debt to the mob.

But this friend, a recent parolee named Worm played by the always astounding Edward Norton ("Primal Fear," "...Larry Flynt") with all the unwashed mannerisms befitting his name, runs circles around Damon's Mike McDermott in the screen charisma department. Mike may be a clever, cute and cocky underdog, but, gee, where have we seen him do that before?

Norton's tarnished penny character doesn't have to draw the fawning femme audience, so he has the freedom to be deliciously fowl, reckless and slimy in a performance that would dominate the movie if he weren't such a good actor that he knows his place as a supporting character.

"Rounders" (a term for a skilled player who earns a living at poker) is about Mike's guilt-by-association re-entry into the gambling scene and his resulting struggle to maintain a front as the scrupulous, upright Joe he's trying to become.

He quit gambling, got into law school and found himself a wonderful girl, all of which he puts at risk for Worm, a friend who would probably never do the same for him.

Mike is our guide to a seedy and dangerously enticing world where tens of thousands of dollars change hands nightly. A place populated by players so wonderfully eccentric that a couple of the best dark and subtle actors in film (John Malkovich, John Turturro) are here to play two of them.

Directed by John Dahl ("Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction"), "Rounders" is lively, swarthy and brimming with potential that it misses by a hair.

Its story is driven by Mike's unwavering friendship (we want him to walk away from Worm and let him get what's coming to him), it's a commendable effort in which the predictable is eschewed at every opportunity.

Even the girlfriend from central casting (an absolute doll named Gretchen Mol, whose talent isn't given range here, but she's going places, believe me) has something more interesting to do than just look pretty. I loved the fact that she leaves Mike when he starts glambling again -- and doesn't take him back later like most movie girlfriends would.

But when push comes to shove, "Rounders" falls back on the banal and, after a few slippery slope scenes dependent on Hollywood contrivances, turns into a bit of a hack piece in the last 20 minutes.

The pivotal moment in the film -- the apex of Mike's understanding of his nature -- depends on a disappointingly ingenuous tell (unconscious physical give-away that card players use to deduce your confidence in your hand) from, supposedly, the most skilled rounder in the film. What's more, Mike wouldn't have even made it to this showdown match if he hadn't been given a loan by a kindly law professor (Martin Landau). Yeah, suuuure.

This is movie's tell, revealing that for all its cultivated effort by a brilliant cast and director, it's still dependent on antiquated screen gimmicks.

"Rounders" isn't a bad movie. It's just a little disapointing because it doesn't realize its potential.

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