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 (Matt Damon), who loses his entire savings to Russian club owner Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). Mike then turns away from cards, devoting his attentions to his law studies and his live-in girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol), who's concerned when Mike's former gambling buddy Worm (Edward Norton) 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 prison debt, and the threatening Grama (Michael Rispoli) 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 ...
Early on, Mike is seen taking money out of a poker book called "Super System", which was written by poker legend Doyle Brunson. He later pulls quotes from the book with the lines "Texas Hold 'em is the Cadillac of poker games" and "The trick to no limit is to put a man to a decision for all his chips." See more »
New York State Police cars are shown with blue and red lights on their roofs, but in New York, the State Police use only red lights. See more »
Well made but eventually a bit thin for anyone not a poker fan
A charming idea, almost romanticized: if you are young, clever, good looking, and savvy at playing poker you can be ultra cool and maybe even wealthy. That makes for a pretty good movie, if not a very accurate reality. It isn't quite enough to keep two hours going, however, and so the big picture here is to enjoy what it has.
A quick comparison might be made to "The Hustler" and related pool shark movies. And like that classic, "Rounders" is about charming deceit. Matt Damon is the main man here, an ex-poker champ who has "gone straight" until his former partner in crime, Ed Norton, gets out of jail and ropes him back into the thrills and malevolence. Like the pool movies, and like the glitzier and more ambitious "Oceans" movies, personalities matter most. The setting, the glint of money, and most of all the plots matter less than you'd think.
So everything is pretty good along those lines, partly because Damon is fun to be with and Norton is simply terrific. An embarrassing appearance in the beginning and end of the movie by an overacting John Malkovich gets in the way of Damon's performance, however. And the general attempt at creating a bunch of bad guys behind the scenes is filled with thin clichés and mediocre acting.
This is the result of having to make more of the story that was ever there. The main idea--that the two leads get into money trouble and have to earn a ton of cash in a few days of wild poker games--is eventually actually a bit of a bore. The gamesmanship is always interesting, of course, but the impetus behind it grows old. The addition of Martin Landau as a Jewish lawyer who gives Damon a mitzvah as a kind of honor paid to continue a favor once given him is a touching part of the larger plot, making you wish there was more of this somehow, more of something genuine and a bit different.
It might not have helped that I recently saw "Croupier" with a young Clive Owen as a poker dealer, because that movie, whatever its simplicity and other limitations, actually made the poker scenes more real for me. In fact, one problem with "Rounders" is you never get to actually sense the betting itself, and the cards--the playing and the strategies of playing--are glossed over with some tossing of chips and flipping of cards, all in a vague muddle.
I did enjoy watching overall, but it left me a little disappointed and restless.
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