"Rounders' is in the chips

Published Sept. 11, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

Poker has always been a risky subject for filmmakers, for the same reason you haven't seen a really good computer hacking movie. Both activities are too static and internalized to be visually interesting. A human mind and passive tools operating in synch is fascinating to imagine and usually boring to watch.

With the exception of Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid, filmmakers haven't respected the silent complexities of poker in a feature film. It's good shorthand for characterization to show someone's skill at the game (or cheating), and a card table is a great place to glare at an enemy, but most poker scenes feel stacked like so many chips.

Gambling in general is another story. Filmmakers love the addictive nature of it, and the bustling environment of a casino or race track is always good for style points. Just keep the game simple and the sets flashy. Blackjack requires only simple math, so that's a popular cinematic choice. Roulette and craps are prettier than cards, and we don't need to understand rules, just watch the players' expressions. That will tell us all we need to know.

The first of many poker lessons taught in John Dahl's Rounders is that showing any expression is a sure way to lose, unless it's calculated to sucker an opponent into a bad bet. Right away, Dahl serves notice that he has more up his sleeve than superficial Maverick-style entertainment.

Viewers won't always be able to read the actors' faces, or know exactly what cards they're holding. We learn just enough to calculate the possibilities. That's an exciting proposition for attentive moviegoers and a creative gamble for any filmmaker. Dahl rarely tips his hand, never underestimates his opponents in the theater seats, and cashes in with style to burn.

Rounders is a tour through the heads of professional gamblers who don't need the glittery trappings of Las Vegas for inspiration. They gather in clandestine gaming rooms dripping with basement grunge or posh affluence. There's a food chain mentality at work in this underworld, ranging from card sharks with tough nicknames to gambling guppies on vacation who vainly believe they can break the bank.

Dahl's center-stage rounders, played by Matt Damon and Edward Norton in a pair of ace performances, tread water somewhere in between.

Mike McDermott is a coincidental extension of two roles Damon parlayed into stardom last year. He's a law student a la The Rainmaker and a casual genius with emotional baggage, like Good Will Hunting. We meet Mike during a gripping opening sequence when he loses $30,000 to Teddy KGB, played with a wickedly overdone accent by John Malkovich. Mike planned to use that money for a run at the World Series of Poker, but the devastating loss convinces him to quit gambling, focus on his studies and please his devoted lover Jo (Gretchen Mol).

Going straight suits him, until a former card partner named Worm (Norton) gets out of prison after a stretch that Mike should have shared. Mike extends a loan and information about hot games, since Worm needs to pay off old debts or risk bodily harm from Teddy KGB's enforcer (Michael Rispoli). Before long, the gambling bug bites Mike again, threatening his education, his relationship with Jo and eventually his life.

Mike's efforts to straddle his two disparate lifestyles creates solid tension that Damon plays with ease. He's one of those rare heartthrobs who doesn't seem to realize how handsome he is, never allowing his looks to get in the way of a well-measured portrayal.

Norton is the movie's wild card, in a performance aptly described by the actor in an interview as a mix of Bugs Bunny and Keith Richards. Worm is a seedy character, yet there's great charm in his sneaky selfishness and compulsive rudeness. Lay this role beside those diverse characters Norton created in Primal Fear, Everybody Says I Love You and The People vs. Larry Flynt and he's a contender for the title of the finest young actor working today.

Revealing all of Dahl's twists would be cheating, since people in Rounders can switch loyalties and desires on the turn of a card. That's a common thread among Dahl's earlier, greatly admired works, including Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Rounders has the same dark vitality. It leaves a viewer pumped for a chance to gamble and wary enough to leave the ATM card at home.

The dual dangers of Mike lifestyle brings advice from a couple of very different mentors, a law professor who gambles for a hobby (Martin Landau) and another rounder (John Turturro) who plays to pay the rent. Dahl constantly uses them to tinker with the allure of high-stakes betting and the security of savings accounts, making the anxiety real for anyone.

Dahl reveals the strategies behind these poker faces by using the tricky gimmick of voice-over narration, which can be irritating in less talented hands. Watch a movie like 54 and you can sense that the narration is intended to fill in gaps in the script, editing or performances. Rounders has sound reasons for making us listen to Mike's inner voice. Screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman keep his monologues interesting and informative, focused on the game, not the next dramatic move. The writing is sharp and peppered with gambler lingo so hip that you want to memorize some lines for use in real life.

Add to the mix a percolating jazz-pop musical score by Christopher Young and neo-noir cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier, and Rounders becomes a sensory treat to match Dahl's cerebral approach. Even his conventional moves seem freshly minted. There's something in almost every scene to make a movie lover's heart skip, as if we drew an inside straight on the last card. Dahl deals it down and dirty.


Grade: A


Director: John Dahl

Cast: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, John Turturro, Michael Rispoli

Screenplay: David Levien, Brian Koppelman

Rating: R; profanity, violence, sexual situations

Running time: 125 min.