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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Rounders

Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton
Director: John Dahl
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Famke Janssen, Martin Landau, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, John Turturro, Melina Kanakaredes

Review by MrBrown
3 stars out of 4

Rounder: 1. A dissolute or rakish person, according to Webster's Dictionary. 2. A hustler, according to World Champion poker player Johnny Chan.

_Rounders_: John Dahl's engrossing drama, a never-less-than fascinating cinematic window peeking into the world of high-stakes poker lurking in New York's underground.

David Levien and Brian Koppelman's central story does a more than adequate, if mechanical, job of taking the audience into its seedy milieu. After losing a hard-won $31,000 in a single game, expert card player and law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) swears off poker at the behest of his classmate and live-in girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol). But, to paraphrase _The_Godfather_Part_III_, just when Mike thought he was out, Worm pulls him back in--Worm being Mike's old friend (Edward Norton), who, soon after his release from prison, lures Mike back into being a "rounder."

I had two key quibbles with Levien and Koppelman's script, one being the contrived dynamics of Mike-Worm relationship. Worm is clearly no good, getting Mike into all sorts of trouble, yet Mike continues to stand by and cover for him. Perhaps Mike is simply loyal to his friends, but if Mike truly is as smart as he's made out to be, he would see Worm for the complete loser that he is. Nonetheless, Damon and Norton's strong rapport make it somewhat easier to believe. No such rapport is present to solve my second problem, which is the unnecessary love story between Mike and Jo, vapidly played by current Hollywood "It Girl" Mol. There is not one scene that establishes their relationship prior to the inevitable strain cause by his return to poker. Their first scene together has her asleep in bed while he heads out, and not too long after that she's arguing with him about his poker outings. How is it possible to have an emotional investment in their romance?

What makes a ticket to _Rounders_ a wise monetary investment for moviegoers is its fascinating look at the underground poker world. While they falter in the aforementioned dramatic areas, Levien and Koppelman make up for it with their attention to detail. They have an acute understanding of the game and this world, making extensive use of insider vernacular, which lends the film an air of authenticity. In fact, so heavy is its use that the press notes include a nearly four-page glossary of poker terms. This is not to say, however, that those without press notes will be scratching their heads. The writers' great accomplishment is making the language accessible to poker neophytes, who will be able to easily understand the insider dialogue through context. A big help is Mike's efficient voiceover narration, which delivers crucial exposition on the game of poker quickly and clearly.

The card game subject matter may seem to be a bit of a stretch for director Dahl, who has made his name with neo-noirs (_Red_Rock_West_ , _The_Last_Seduction_). But his noir-bred gift for creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense makes for some tense and exciting poker matches. The air of mystery also comes through in a few memorable characters, such as Joey Knish (John Turturro), a seasoned poker player who sometimes advises Mike; Petra (Famke Janssen), the sultry head of the Chesterfields poker club; and, most notably, Russian poker master Teddy KGB (an effectively hammy John Malkovich), to whom Mike loses his $31,000 in the film's opening.

After watching large sums of money being won and (mostly) lost in _Rounders_, it is doubtful that any moviegoer will be eager to gain entry into some high-stakes card games; as Mike says in the film, poker is not a game of luck, but of skill. Similarly, neither is filmmaking, and it is the filmmakers' skill that makes _Rounders_ a worthwhile entertainment.

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