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
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
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
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