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 ...
I have no idea if this movie is at all realistic (certainly so many people inhabiting this strata of the poker world can be so good looking), but at least it has the ring of verisimilitude. Not only does it show us the workings of a somewhat exotic (to me, anyway) part of the world, but it manages to do this stylishly while treating us to an interesting character study and a clever plot.
The story is about a young "rounder" who is trying to go straight by going to law school (although our first glimpse of him shows him losing all his money in a high-stakes poker game with a Russian gangster). He quits gambling for a while until a old friend (played by Norton) returns to his life and lands him in deep trouble. What I especially like about the movie is that is starts off as if this plot line is the main subject, when in fact the movie is about this person learning important things about himself. And there is a lot of information about poker...
Damon is especially impressive among a uniformly good cast.
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