In late 1950s New York, Tom Ripley, a young underachiever, is sent to Italy to retrieve a rich and spoiled millionaire playboy, named Dickie Greenleaf. But when the errand fails, Ripley takes extreme measures.
I love this movie: the plot line is pat and predictable as it effortlessly unfolds; the characters are clearly defined and you know who to root for and who to despise; and there are no dull scenes or dead end sub-plots. Matt Damon is Mike, an affable law student with little interest in the law and a passion for high stakes poker. When he loses his shirt and promises his girl friend (cute and perky Gretchen Mol) that he will never play poker again, you know this pie-crust promise will quickly be broken. And broken it is when Matt picks up his former schoolmate buddy, "Worm" (Edward Norton) who is getting out of prison and leads him back to the poker table and deep, deep into debt and hot water.
As usual, Matt Damon is adorable as the talented gambler, flashing those dimples and that Gary Cooper down-turned grin; John Malkovich is over the top as cookie-munching Teddy KGB, and, yes, if you're familiar with Russians just off the boat, you know they really DO speak like that and have a natural flare for the dramatic; Martin Landau delivers another impeccable performance as the aging, melancholic law professor whose family expected him to become a rabbi; Famke Janssen is nicely understated as the errand girl who has the obvious hots for Matt; and John Turtorro puts is solid as Knish, the grinder. Indeed, Mr. Turorro is becoming one of the most reliable and dependable supporting players to grace any film in which he appears. When the time and the role are right, his time will come.
But the real star of this film is Edward Norton as the low-life sociopath who bears the appropriate sobriquet "Worm." Twenty years ago when I first saw "The Onion Field," I thought James Wood had created the sleaziest character ever to appear on film. Jim, move over. Norton is cheap, slimy, and skinny, devoid of scruples and empathy, a little wise guy with a big mouth and nothing to back it up. You just KNOW this scumbag neither bathes nor brushes his teeth, and when the little rat gets the stuffings beaten out of him by a group of off-duty cops whom he has cheated, you want to join in and get in a punch. Women will want to slap him. In his first scene he lets you know he's a hard-hearted louse: told that he is being released from prison in the middle of a penny-ante card game with his cell mates who beg him to leave his cigarettes behind, he gathers them up and then contemptuously drops them in the dumper on the way out. This is a cockroach with no redeeming social value who lives to use and con and degrade people.
It's no trick for an actor to make you love him; to make you despise him so much you'd like to throttle him takes real talent. I've seen Ed Norton in "Fight Club," "Primal Fear," and "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and this is one young actor to watch. He's one of those natural actors who can be whatever he wants to be and it will be sheer joy watching him grow and mature.
"Rounders" may be short on originality, but it's long on suspense, action, and entertainment and while not the best flick to come down the pike, it's a wonderfully satisfying two hours. I don't know much about the game of poker, but I sure do know a good movie when I see one. I give it an 8 out 10 rating for human interest.
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