Saturday 1 September 2018

Movie Review: Rounders (1998)

A poker drama, Rounders captures the culture of incessant gambling and the spirit of the game, but the human characters and motivations are only partially convincing.

In New York, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a gifted but small-scale young poker player and part-time law school student dreaming of making it big at the Las Vegas tables. Trying to raise quick money, he loses all his cash on one hand playing against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), the Russian cutthroat operator of a gambling den. Mike gives up poker, accepts a job as a delivery driver offered by his friend Knish (John Turturro), and settles down with girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol).

But when Mike's old poker buddy Lester "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton) is released from prison, Mike cannot resist: he is soon back to the tables with Worm, straining his relationship with Jo. Worm is a full-fledged gambling addict and cannot help but cheat at every hand, and to make matters worse, owes money all over town. Soon loan shark Grama (Michael Rispoli) comes around to collect, and Mike is caught between being loyal to his friend or straightening out his life.

Rounders tries to have it both ways in terms of a grim tone and a pleasant protagonist, and rarely succeeds. The film works hard to create the seedy, pessimistic and overbearing ambience of classic gambling dramas like The Hustler, The Color Of Money and California Split. But built entirely upon Matt Damon's sunny and boyish persona, the central character of Mike McDermott is way too cheerful, positive and resourceful to fit into the film's intended groove, and the crippling narration does not help.

Mike wants the keep the girl, make the money, chase his dream, impress his law school professor, and remain loyal to his past friendship with Worm. He spouts earnest lines about the philosophy of the game while he goes about his business with happy-go-lucky optimism, a fundamental disconnect between the tough-as-nails world of illicit gambling dens and a man who wants to do well for himself and good by all.

Worm is a more realistic fit in the desperate gambling world. Better yet, Teddy KGB is an instant classic tertiary character (the name alone deserves an award), John Malkovich sinking his teeth into the combustible Russian with a brilliant accent, alternating between a smooth as silk card player and dishing out implied threats of violence most extreme.

Director John Dahl does the best he can with the script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and occasionally the film sputters to life, usually at the poker tables. Rounders is credited with accurately conveying the mind games and tension that drive card duels, and embraces the theme of poker as a game of skill rather than luck. Regardless, the speed and precision with which Mike predicts other players' cards remains difficult to believe for the uninitiated, and late in the film the deciphering of a critical "tell" is celebrated rather than explained.

As for plot and storyline, Rounders does not offer much, nor is it expected do. Gambling dramas are a study of characters battling unseen internal demons, except here while the talk is tough, the protagonist's disposition is more suited to a fluffy pillow fight.

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  1. I remember liking this, not loving it. I don't remember, or didn't pick up on, the disconnect between Damon's character and the narrative. Might need to revisit this one.

    1. It's worth re-watching for the few scenes with Teddy KGB...


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