TV brought a white-hot flame of popularity back to poker about a decade ago, but that interest quickly fizzled to the ember it is today. However, there’s one poker movie that hasn’t lost any luster in the nearly two decades since its release in 1998: “Rounders.” It easily expands the legacy of the Steve McQueen’s “The Cincinnati Kid” as a poker classic and even surpasses it in some ways. Just like “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Rounders” has exceptional acting from a solid turn by Matt Damon to its major impetus from Edward Norton’s usual superlative effort. On another solid note, “Rounders” modernizes the game for today’s audiences. Poker isn’t the darling of the high-number cable set anymore (too many controversies and a general realization that watching people play cards isn’t really much entertainment), but you can watch “Rounders” anytime and thoroughly enjoy it.
(1998; 121 minutes; rated R; directed by John Dahl and starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton and Gretchen Mol)
CHANGE COMES QUICKLY WITH THE TURN OF A CARD
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, updating of links and fixing a few typos on April 8, 2016, and then again on Feb. 22, 2017.)
Gambling is nothing new to the big screen and there is solid cinematic art framed by a billiards or poker tables. Take the Paul Newman-Jackie Gleason pool classic “The Hustler” from 1961 and even the Newman-Tom Cruise sequel to it with “The Color of Money” in 1986. Or take Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson elevating poker in 1965’s “The Cincinnati Kid.”
Later, in 1998 just before the early 2000s poker boom, came “Rounders” with a tight story, flawless direction and an excellent, deep cast. Rumors continue that a sequel is in the works for a film that was a box office disappointment but received cult status through the poker boom. It was profitable, making $23 million on a budget of $12 million and was the 80th ranked film at the box office for that year, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Rounders” is directed by Ron Dahl and is every bit as good as the very underrated effort from him titled “You Kill Me” with Ben Kingsley and Téa Leoni (click here for my review). Dahl did spectacular work with both films but hasn’t worked in cinema since “You Kill Me” in 2007 – he’s been behind the cameras for great TV shows, but not another film.
In “Rounders,” Matt Damon plays law student “Mike McDermott” and the film opens with him gathering all his money ($30,000 or, as he calls it, “three stacks of high society”) and headed off to a high-stakes game run by John Malkovich, who plays Russian émigré “Teddy KGB,” who runs an illegal poker room in New York and is connected to the mob. Damon loses it all and then has to get back on the straight-and-narrow … at least for a time.
Enter Edward Norton, who plays “Lester ‘Worm’ Murphy” (OK, so not very subtle). Norton is Damon’s buddy who’s just getting out of prison and back into Damon’s life after not ratting Damon out on the gambling scheme that landed him behind bars. Well, Norton’s release won’t work out well for Matt in most ways. Norton’s wonderfully condescending manner with tough cons over a card game at the movie’s beginning shows his character and what’s to come in the film.
From there, their lives dissolve into Norton continuing to get into trouble and Damon finding or trying to find a way out. Along the way Damon’s relationship finally collapses with live-in girlfriend “Jo,” played by Gretchen Mol, and he’s back into the poker game of substrata New York City’s poker denizens – the “rounders.”
Norton winds up owing a lot of money from debts before going to prison and Damon puts his own name on the line and has to then go on a streak to make the money in just a matter of days. From there, the film spins out to a predictable but still uncertain end for Damon.
Here’s a look at the headliners and their efforts:
- Oscar winner and three-time nominee (not for this one) Damon does his usual best in an understated example of a good guy who is smart, thoughtful and at heart … honest. He never lets the audience down, although cheating at cards a few times whittles away at this image. I like him best in “Dogma” (click here for my review), while he’s also been in the remade and modern “Ocean’s” franchise (click here for my review of the original or you can click here for my review of the second sequel) and was terrific as the title character in “The Bourne Identity,” but isn’t in the whole franchise. He was also in “Saving Private Ryan” and won his Oscar for writing in “Good Will Hunting” (where he was a nominee for acting) and was most recently a nominee for acting in “The Martian” (click here for my review).
- Three-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Norton simply does the best job in “Rounders” and that’s saying a lot with the actors’ actors playing supporting roles. Norton is over-the-top frenetic in his foraging for money and he is pitch perfect as the grungy, gangly “Worm.” No one else could have done this role any better – or you could look at it as Norton simply made “Worm” the character it is. I liked Norton in the nice remake of “The Italian Job” and he was also terrific in “Fight Club.” Norton’s nominations are for “American History X,” “Primal Fear” and “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
- For the female lead of the cast, the best you can say is that Mol does a somewhat efficient job as the straight-laced and milquetoast “Jo.” She doesn’t understand Damon’s friendship with Norton, nor his obvious pleasure from his talent and excellence with poker. Mol had a prime character and a chance to elevate it. She didn’t. “Jo” is barely window-dressing in this one and the character basically unnecessary. Mol was in “Donnie Brasco” and “3:10 to Yuma,” while garnering kudos for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
However, there is also great work in support of Damon and Norton as well as doing a good job making up for Mol’s less-than-interesting turn.
- Of course actor’s actor Malkovich, who is a two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), does a great job and makes the most of his limited screen time. He simply becomes the character of “Teddy KGB” and leads the way for the supporting cast. He is especially good at looking somewhat with disdain at Damon, but all the while having respect. It’s not an easy emotion to convey in film. Malkovich was nominated for “In the Line of Fire” with Clint Eastwood (click here for my review) as well as the unrelentingly boring snifflebag called “Places in the Heart” (thanks, Ray Romano through your sitcom for that term that so wonderfully describes the “snifflebag” genre of film).
- Another actor’s actor, Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) John Turturro, who shined in supporting roles in films such as “To Live and Die in L.A.” (click here for my review), gives his usual deep characterization as “Joey Knish,” a professional gambler since the age of 19. He apparently immersed himself in the “Knish” character and you’d probably not want to play cards with him even today because of the effectiveness of his work here. Turturro can be found in big-budget films such as “Transformers” or in an eclectic film such as “The Big Lebowski” or even on TV as he was “Ambrose” the OCD brother of the equally OCD title character in “Monk. I liked him best in Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show.”
- The most subtle and cerebral supporting character is Oscar winner and two-time nominee (not for this one) Martin Landau, who will forever be known to my generation as “Rollin Hand” from the hit 1960s TV series “Mission: Impossible.” Landau plays “Abe Petrovsky,” a judge who would like to take Damon under his legal wing. Landau’s discourse about his character’s life with Damon in a barroom scene is a spotlight moment in the film and just about the best both actors could give. Landau won his Oscar for “Ed Wood” and was nominated for “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”
- The female actor who deserved more time at the expense of the ho-hum Mol is Famke Janssen, who plays poker club manager “Petra.” She would like to get closer again to Damon, but the role only offers a glimpse of how good Janssen could have been. Janssen is sharp, cool and manages to exude desire for Damon without being either aggressive or put-offish. Wow, I wish the filmmakers had had the foresight to expand her character. However, I don’t believe Janssen did that good of a job in the 007 thriller “GoldenEye” (click here for my review) and she’s been in the “X-Men” franchise as “Jean Grey.”
- Also extremely underrated in a very aggressive role is Michael Rispoli as “Grama,” who is the scuzzy lowlife who’s bought up Norton’s debts and begins to squeeze him. Rispoli shows he’s right at home as he wallows in the sleazy underworld of pimps, prostitutes and bars where you might not want to go. He does a great job with casual violence and the basic indifference to the grimy world in which he lives. It’s completely different work than his turn as the somewhat endearing “Joe Jr.” in “While You were Sleeping” with Sandra Bullock (click here for my review). Rispoli was in “The Rum Diary” and the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” with John Travolta plus was in HBO’s magnificent “The Sopranos” as “Jackie Aprile.”
On the writing front, this one is tight and its plot is lean, but layered so as not to be stereotypical and “Rounders” has enough muscle to have Damon finally tell why he decided to risk it all at the beginning of the film and it not come off as corny or predictable.
As I noted, “Rounders” was the 80th ranked film at the U.S. box office with $23 million in ticket sales on a budget of $12 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film of the year was “Saving Private Ryan” with $216.5 million. Films from that year that I’ve reviewed include the terrific chick flick “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review); the underrated but not really that good horror film “The Night Flier” (click here for my review); the absolutely horrid piece of dreck called “Dirty Work” with Norm MacDonald (click here for my review); and the quietly excellent “The Pentagon Wars” with Kelsey Grammer (click here for my review).
Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- In real life Norton is virulently anti-smoking. He was supposed to smoke in the film, but wouldn’t and his character tosses out cigarettes won in a prison game to show his disgust with the habit.
- Neve Campbell turned down the role of “Jo” and was in “Wild Things,” “54” and two other films released in 1998. She also gave a sterling performance in “Panic” (click here for my review) and of course starred in the “Scream” horror franchise (click here for my review of the original) as well as a guest shot on “Mad Men.” Without a doubt she has the talent to have elevated “Jo” beyond the hum-drum work done by Mol. Sorry, Neve, gotta criticize you for not doing this one.
- Josh Mostel, son of Broadway and film star Zero Mostel, has a small part as one of the poker players. He can also be seen in “Big Daddy” and “Little Man Tate.”
- In 2008, according to Wiki, Janssen was named Goodwill Ambassador for Integrity by the United Nations.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Matt Damon and Edward Norton played the $10,000 buy-in Texas Hold ‘Em championship event at the 1998 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. During the first of four days, Matt Damon had pocket Kings and was knocked out by former world champion and poker legend Doyle Brunson who held pocket Aces.”
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