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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 Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

Mike used to hide wads of cash all over the apartment he shares with his disapproving girlfriend (Gretchen Mol). Like an alcoholic who has to have his hidden bottles to quench his drinking habit, he needed the greenbacks to support his gambling obsession. As a guy who watches tapes again and again of the 1988 World Series of Poker, he sees himself as skillful rather than lucky. He thinks he's invincible, but he's retired from poker.

Now driving a delivery truck to pay for his law school tuition, he no longer frequents the tables with his fellow "rounders," i.e., people who gamble with those round chips.

But like most alcoholics, his abstinence doesn't last long.

GOOD WILL HUNTING's Academy Award nominee Matt Damon plays Mike as a smart guy who is convinced he has learned enough to join the poker-playing elite. Mike is a pensive guy who can read a player's hand in a heartbeat by observing every nuance of the other player's expressions.

In complete contrast, his buddy from high school, Worm, has just gotten out of prison - he was incarcerated for "distributing" credit cards. Worm is a great "mechanic" at cards, but his judgement isn't as well developed as his cheating skills, which gets him into no end of trouble. Played as a time bomb on a short fuse by PRIMAL FEAR's Academy Award nominee Edward Norton, he is as boisterous and unpredictable as Mike is silently calculating.

John Dahl, director of the brilliant THE LAST SEDUCTION, takes a parsimonious and precise approach to his direction of ROUNDERS. Scenes are staged for dramatic impact without requiring the actors to push the emotional envelope.

The script by first-time screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman takes a formula story and turns many of the rules upside down. The audience suspects that the movie may end in a big game, but the movie seems to be in no rush getting to it. What the film becomes is an atmospheric character study of the world of gambling. The script's sporadic humor bursts out periodically to shatter the story's more somber rhythms. Mike speaks in frequent, rich narration to provide just enough explanation about the game to clear up some of its mysteries and to explain his character's motivations. "You don't hear much about guys who take their shot and miss," he reflects in his most introspective moment.

The ensemble cast is well chosen and developed to maximum advantage. John Turturro plays a hardworking gambling professional who has alimony and child support to pay so he doesn't take chances. He's more interested in paying living expenses than making the big score or becoming famous, which is a polar opposite to Mike's approach. As Mike's supportive professor, Martin Landau provides Mike some key insights on life. The professor, descended from a long line of rabbis, confides that he chose the law when he realized that he didn't believe in God. In the best supporting role, a tackily dressed John Malkovich in his best performance in years, is the king of New York's card players and an ex-KGB agent. Malkovich has an over-the-top accent that is nothing short of hilarious.

ROUNDERS has a well-chosen name for more reasons than one. An extremely well rounded film, it works as well in the small moments as well as the big ones. Although the conclusion is satisfying and well developed, the journey itself is the reward.

ROUNDERS runs 1:58. It is rated R for some sex, nudity, profanity, and drug usage and would be fine for older teenagers.

Copyright 1998 Steve Rhodes

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