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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Rounders" is to poker what "Without Limits" is to track. Both deal with sports and particularly with the passion of those who revel in their practice. You can lose weight with running, your shirt and then some with the card game. While Steve Prefontaine's competitions take place outdoors, its sportsmen seeking the inside track, car sharp Mike McDermott's (Matt Damon) are indoors, its players tracking a sporting chance. "Rounders," which is directed by John Dahl ("Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction"), is photographed largely in red giving it the same noir ambiance of Dahl's other films. The story has a fairly pronounced narration throughout by its principal character, who relates the nature of the game in the flat, matter-of-fact tones of the genre, a deep contrast with the excitable timbre common to announcers of outside sports.

As the film gets under way, you being to think, What is this really about? Is it about friendship? It is, to an extent. Is it about passion? That it is, decidedly so--you're convinced of that when you hear law professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau) mentor his poker-playing student: "We cannot run away from who we are...Our destiny chooses us." Mike is attending law school, but barely takes time to prepare his mock cases. His destiny is written in the cards, not in pursuing the legal profession. But even more, the movie is not about these Big Issues but is rather an intensely focussed meditation on the game of poker written by two men (David Koppelman and David Levien) who either have an obsession with the game or, having investigated some of the underground and above- board sites, found the subject a worthwhile one to pursue. Although a sizable chunk of the movie is taken up with shuffling and dealing, conning and stinging, you don't really have to know the rules or even have an enthusiasm for gambling. Not that it's suspenseful. The conclusion is as predictable as the final victory of a champ in any movie about competing. Instead, "Rounders" provides the evidence that poker is NOT a game of luck but almost totally a contest of skill. What more proof do we need than to witness the same players returning to the world series of card playing year after year?

The story opens in New York on Mike McDermott, attending law school together with his live-in girl friend Jo (Gretchen Mol). Hearing that his bosom buddy and scam artist Worm (Edward Norton) is to be released from jail, he picks him up and resists Worm's pleas to return to playing high-stakes poker. Refusing at first, as he had lost his tuition money to Russian mafia kingpin Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), he succumbs against the strong counsel of his girl friend and of his mentor Joey Knish (John Turturro), enters into a shady partnership with his pal to skin the tourists in places like Atlantic City's Taj Mahal, and being the good buddy he is, vouches for a large loan which the gangsters make to Worm. The greater part of the film deals not with his deteriorating relationship with the lovely Jo or with his involvement in law school where he appears to do not homework or attend any classes. Rather it delves deeply into the subculture of poker.

Audience members without a scorecard may find themselves begging for subtitles, as the dialogue includes a rich vocabulary of jargon. Everyone knows that a full house is also called a boat, and that fold means that you are surrendering your hand. But how many viewers will understand terms like checks, blinds, base deals, road shows, Fourth Street, Greek dealer, Grinder, It, Kansas City and Maniac? There must be more esoteric terms in poker than Gray had to describe the bones and muscles of the body in his "Anatomy," but never mind. You'll enjoy the superlative acting of Matt Damon, whose dimensions are tested and found in abundance here far more than they appear in his smaller role in "Saving Private Ryan."

"Rounders" (the term means "hustlers" but refers here to wholly committed poker players) is a small movie with small pleasures whose principal rewards are the an increased respect for the skill involved in its sport and its shady, sometimes droll depiction of the milieu of its gamblers. The world champion poker player appears in a cameo in a movie which, despite its portrayal of passion is diverting rather than uplifting and one which does not look with a patronizing air at a guy who seems to be self-destructing with his passion for the deal.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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