MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Matt Damon (Mike McDermott), Edward Norton (Worm), John Malkovich (Teddy KGB), Gretchen Mol (Jo), John Turturro (Joey Knish), Martin Landau (Petrovsky)
Even though it's not as good as it could have been , "Rounders" is certainly an educational experience. For those without a working knowledge of the in's and out's of gambling and all the slang and lingo associated with it, "Rounders" will be a real eye-opener. The best scenes in the movie take place at the poker table and allow us to safely watch professional gamblers easily taking advantage of know-nothing amateurs who are out of their league. Of course, the whole time I kept thinking, "If I were there, I would be that idiot at the end of the table getting all his money taken."
The movie is replete with all kinds of insider lingo that goes a long way toward painting a thoroughly convincing portrait of the gambling world. For instance, the title, "Rounders," refers to the slang term for a professional gambler who moves from table to table, making the rounds. On the other hand, a "mechanic" is someone who cheats while playing. And then there are those catchy monikers for poker games, like "No Limit Texas Hold'em," which is apparently the only "pure" poker game left.
In addition to neat vocabulary words, the voice-over narration by star Matt Damon is filled with poker-inspired philosophical phrases that are as applicable to life as they are to the game (for these characters, anyway). For instance, one of the first lines heard in the movie is Damon telling us, "If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker." And, of course, there's the cardinal rule of poker, the one no one in this movie seems capable of following: "Always leave yourself an out."
The story revolves around Mike McDermott (Damon), a young twentysomething New Yorker working his way through law school by gambling in underground games. All throughout the film he reminds us that gambling is a game of skill, not of luck. Director John Dahl ("Last Seduction") constantly punches that notion home by intimately showing us how the game is played. He takes us over the shoulders and through the eyes of the men (with one exception, all the players are men) engaged in high-stakes games. Damon's words and Dahl's camera efficiently show us how someone's facial ticks, his eye movement, the way he smokes a cigarette, or how he puts his hand over his mouth can tell his opponent everything.
Early in the film, Mike loses $30,000 to Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), the heavily-accented Russian owner of an underground poker house. The $30,000 was just about everything Mike and his girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol), had. So, thinking he's learned his lesson, he swears off gambling cold turkey and begins working nights in order to pay for his lost tuition.
Everything seems fine until nine months later, when Mike's childhood buddy and ex-poker partner, Worm (Edward Norton), is released from prison. Worm's name is an all too obvious indicator of what kind of a person he is: sleazy, slimy, always trying to cut corners when he shouldn't. He's cocky without having the brass to back it up, and that tends to get him into trouble--big trouble. It isn't long before Worm is $15,000 in the hole, and because Mike makes the mistake of vouching for him, it might as well be his debt.
The relationship between Mike and Worm is consciously patterned on the friendship between Harvey Keitel's and Robert De Niro's characters in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973). Just like the relatively responsible Keitel character was brought down by the self-destructive but charming De Niro character, so it is with Damon and Norton. Mike feels the need to protect Worm--at one point in the movie, he explains that he stands up for him because nobody else ever has. And it isn't hard to see why. Worm is the kind of character who is hell-bent on destroying himself and everyone around him for no particular reason other than his own inability to see past the end of his nose.
Unfortunately, what "Mean Streets" excelled in is what "Rounders" completely lacks: moral gravity. When Scorsese made his gritty urban street tale, he had a moral in mind. There was something harsh and necessary to be learned from watching Keitel go down under the weight of De Niro's this-is-just-the-way-I-am self-destructiveness. Despite the character similarities, in "Rounders" there is no such lesson to be learned.
In fact, although the movie starts out in a similar mold, about two-thirds of the way through it, you suddenly realize that this isn't a morality play at all--it's a sports movie. In the utterly predictable and astonishingly simplistic finale, first-time screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman let all the air out of the story by staging a re-match between Mike and Teddy KGB. It's "Rocky" at the poker table, and the only lesson to be learned is that it's worth it to take the big risk, even if it means losing everything. We are supposed to accept this because the movie goes to great pains to make us believe that Mike is a born gambler. At point heavy-handed point, the movie even suggests that being a professional poker player is the destiny from which Mike cannot and should not escape.
At the beginning, it seemed that the whole point of the Mike-Worm relationship was to show the inherent danger of their lifestyle, but the ending completely reverses that logic. In fact, the high-stakes game between Mike and Teddy KGB starts with Mike trying to simply save his life, but ends with his just wanting to show up a presumably superior poker player. The story defeats itself by discarding the whole notion of Mike having sacrificed himself almost to his death in favor of having him win the big game for his own personal glory.
Despite the thematic confusion, "Rounders" is nevertheless an entertaining movie. The poker game scenes are always enthralling, and Dahl's direction is sure-footed and engrossing. He and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier paint "Rounders" in the distinctive shades of film noir, especially in the exterior shots at night, which are almost all black and yellow. The noirish tone is set early with Damon's voice-over, the chiaroscuro lighting in the underground games, and the jazzy score by Christopher Young.
Unfortunately, the movie's style is often undermined by its subject matter. There is so much potential in the story that is left untapped, and you feel cheated for having sat through a formula movie masquerading as something deeper. The Hollywood big game finish becomes the first priority, so when Norton's character simply disappears from the narrative when he is no longer needed, it's not particularly surprising. But it is definitely disappointing.
©1998 James Kendrick