Rounders is a 1998 film set in the world of underground poker featuring early performances from Edward Norton and Matt Damon. Mike McDermott (Damon) is a law student and gifted poker player who loses his entire bankroll on one hand to Russian mobster ‘KGB’ (John Malkovich). After briefly quitting the game to concentrate on his studies under the advice of his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol), Mike gets back into it following the release from prison of his close friend and loose cannon Lester ‘Worm’ Murphy (Norton). With Worm’s debt’s mounting up and Mike mistakenly vouching for him, the pair is given two days to come up with the $15,000 needed to pay the debt but begin with only a few dollars to their names.
I played a bit of poker while at University both with friends and online but was never good enough to play for more than small change. This film has been credited as an influence behind the careers of many professional poker players including World Series Poker winner Brian Rast and one of the game’s foremost sex symbols Vanessa Rousso. Along with many other players, they have both credited the film as being what drew them in to the sport. Pro Poker player Michael Rocco even wrote this piece, heralding the film’s influence over his career.
Considering my knowledge of poker is limited, I found the film really interesting. A voice over from Damon eases viewers into the rules of the game and is always on hand to explain variations and the tricks he’s picked up along the way to help him read other players. The film manages to pitch itself to people without any knowledge of poker as well as experts at the same time by explaining just enough to keep newbies interested while not overly explaining and getting on the nerves of those who understand more about the sport. The film shows different stages of a number of games and conveys the tension which accompanies them. It also displays the strategy which makes a good poker player and the greed and haste which can condemn a poor one to losing their money.
The plot follows the rules of a typical sports movie but has thriller elements. The hero shows promise and wins then loses it all and faces challenges before a final head to head with his foe. It’s the same story which has been done in movies about a wide range of sports but it’s done quite well here. Even so, you never get the sense that Mike will lose in the end which takes away some of the jeopardy. Edward Norton’s Worm character has an arc which is much less predictable. Because of his high stakes, all or nothing attitude you can’t be sure if he’s going to come out on top in any particular game or in life. Both actors equip themselves well to their respective roles with Norton showing the edge and uneasiness he reproduced in the likes of American History X and Fight Club. Matt Damon plays close to his Good Will Hunting character, a man with intelligence and the world at his feet but without the nous to go out and take it. Both performances show signs that the actors were destined for stardom. John Malkovich chews through the scenery in a dodgy Russian accent but is entertaining and a little scary and there is good support from John Turturro, Framke Janssen and Martin Landau. Gretchen Mol isn’t particularly convincing or watchable though and is the weak link in an otherwise fine cast.
The direction from John Dahl is assured and steady and the cinematography has a slight grainy, almost Noir look about it. Poker is a popular topic for movies with everything from James Bond to Ocean’s Eleven to The Sting filling their plots with chips, cards, blinds and bluffs but I’ve never found the poker as interesting or as tense as I did in Rounders. That’s to the credit of the writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman who help to produce a film which is well made, edgy and fascinating and made me want to go back online and find a table.