Director John Dahl’s quasi-SF thriller Unforgettable tanked in 1996, but he had already made a name for himself with a couple of crackling neo-noir pictures: Red Rock West and cult fave The Last Seduction. His new Rounders smells like a comeback picture, and it reinforces Dahl’s reputation as a stylish, low-key chronicler of the lives of saps and scoundrels. The resulting picture is a thinking man’s take on the game of poker that’s vastly entertaining, yet fundamentally unsatisfying.
What Rounders lacks can be blamed squarely on a formulaic screenplay (by David Levien and Brian Koppelman) that relies on stock characters and fails to follow through on the dilemmas it creates. What it’s best at is its whirlwind tour of the world of New York City “rounders.” We’re told that’s a slang term for professional poker players, the kind who can tell what cards you’re holding just by looking in your eyes. Rounders hop from one underground poker table to the next, posing as easy marks and then cleaning out their competition with an aw-shucks grin and an attitude that says “golly, I can’t believe how lucky I am tonight.” (The funniest scene has a bunch of pros sitting around an Atlantic City poker table, a veritable web spun to snare unwary fat-pocketed tourists.) The film is loaded with juicy tidbits in support of the thesis that poker is a game of skill rather than chance.
Matt Damon brings his highly touted good looks to the role of Mike McDermott, a one-time rounder who gave up the game after losing his bankroll to a local Russian mobster known as Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). Edward Norton makes an amiable and infuriating Worm, the inveterate cardsharp (and ex-con) who pulls Mike back into the game against the express wishes of tisk-tisking girlfriend Gretchen Mol. Damon earns his keep and then some, playing charming, smart, and just naive enough to let us believe that he could get himself into a real mess with a minimum of effort. Mol (seen also in Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral) is china-doll pretty, but she brings nothing new to her insultingly thin role. Famke Janssen, however, makes a dynamite supporting player in her couple of minutes on-screen. And Martin Landau lends a studied gravity to his scenes as the law professor who takes an interest in the wayward Mike, warning him that we can’t escape our destinies.
As Mike’s obvious nemesis, Malkovich is in full John-Malkovich-scenery-chewing mode, over-the-top and into orbit — so naturally there’s got to be a scene in the film where the two of them hunker down over a deck of cards and McDermott tries to settle the score. Elsewhere, the baddest of bad omens — like a poker room full of state troopers — are so cavalierly ignored by Mike and Worm that the whole film feels telegraphed in advance, right up to the requisite happy ending. If the film has a message, it’s that the most important thing is to follow your heart, even if that means your woman will ditch you, your teachers will flunk you out of school, and the Russian mafia will threaten to cut out your liver and mail it to your mother, postage due.
It’s easy to grouse about the overly optimistic narrative, which demonstrates few ill effects of compulsive gambling and spectacularly poor judgment. But Hollywood has always rewarded risk-takers and, slightly seedy environment notwithstanding, this Miramax release is very much a Hollywood-style diversion. Rounders is happy to be an intriguing, exceptionally well-acted little drama with some insight into the game of poker and an absorbingly implausible story. It’s rare that a movie lacking so much in logic and characterization is such fun to watch.
Directed by John Dahl
Written by David Levien & Brian Koppelman
Cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier
Edited by Scott Chestnut
Starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol,
Famke Janssen, John Turturro, and John Malkovich
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)