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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 Walter Frith
2½ stars out of 4

'Rounders' has several things going for it. It's star, Matt Damon is an Oscar winning screenwriter for his efforts last year on 'Good Will Hunting' with Ben Affleck. Reports have it that the two of them are out to prove that they aren't just one hit wonders as they have just put the finishing touches on a new draft of another screenplay. Damon's co-star in 'Rounders' is Edward Norton, the incredibly diverse new comer who thrilled audiences is 1996's 'Primal Fear' as the two-faced killer who wasn't truly revealed until the end of the film and for which Norton received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for which he should have won. Norton also appeared as the attorney for Larry Flynt is 'The People vs. Larry Flynt' and was seen in Woody Allen's 'Everyone Says I Love You'. Martin Landau (Best Supporting Actor in 1994's 'Ed Wood') also appears in 'Rounders' as a fairly pivotal supporting player.

Movies about gambling have always made for good character studies. Up there with alcoholism and drug abuse, most films of this nature usually manage to tell a good human story. My favourite film about gambling is still James Caan's 1974 performance in 'The Gambler' (no, not the one with Kenny Rogers) and a close second is Robert Altman's 'California Split', ironically made the same year.

'In 'Rounders', Matt Damon plays a law student who is working his internship and goes to greet an old friend and a never do well played by Edward Norton who has just been released from prison. Both men are compulsive card players at various styles of poker. Damon teeters on returning to the seductive world of easy money but resists at the request of his live in girlfriend (Gretchen Mol). Damon once gambled and lost to the leader of a Russian underworld organization in New York City played by John Malkovich who probably has a Russian accent down better than any other American actor I've seen. Damon lost $30,000 of his money, which was his working money and was also going to pay for his tuition.

Damon eventually returns to the gambling circuit and he and Norton get into debt above their heads and their lives are placed in jeopardy. Before Norton went up the river, he had a number of outstanding debts and after his release from prison, hustles his way as a wannabe street smart player who is a born loser.

There are a number of interesting other characters in the film who don't get a lot of exposure but there is a peculiar strength and well developed aspect in each of their personalities that director John Dahl has touched on well. Famke Janssen ('GoldenEye'), plays an illegal gambling club attendant and John Turturro plays a trusted friend of Damon's who has to turn his back on Damon in the final run to teach Damon a lesson. This is probably the best thing he could do for him as their friendship is put to the test. Damon and Norton are very good in their roles and they each hold their own against one another.

Martin Landau plays a judge and a sort of fatherly figure to Damon who helps Damon when he is cornered in debt.

Director John Dahl ('Red Rock West' and 'The Last Seduction') is one of those directors who like John Sayles and Peter Hyams, has made some good films but who is unlikely to rise to the occasion of a high calibre director's status. Screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman avoid clichés and drum up a solid and hard boiled screenplay that doesn't try and be too smart for its own good. It just stays effective enough and lets the actors breath life into the words on the pages in a smooth and highly dramatic style. One of the saving graces of the film is its success in being almost humourless. It knows that no comic relief is needed in a film like this.

'Rounders' offers no powerful insight into the world of gambling. It primarily wants to be a low key but effective and moody look at low lifes and people just above the gutter who have the capability of falling in at a moment's notice. The camera work is well laid out in a lot of smoke filled and dimly lit rooms that capture the underworld perfectly. The film is an adult lesson in morals that unfortunately has a predictable ending that makes one breath a sigh of relief but its even pace and shortage of slow spots combined with its message of hypocrisy about society's tolerance of the intolerable make it real and effectively memorable.

Copyright © 1998 Walter Frith

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