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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rounders - A Film Review

Rounders is a 1998 drama directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West), written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol, Martin Landeau, and John Malkovich. It is an excellent drama set in the seedy poker card game underbelly of NYC, with gamblers, loan sharks, Russian gangsters, and shady characters. The film feels like an inside look at a subculture that is very macho, of alpha male types and streetwise cats trying to outsmart each other in poker games. The film did modestly when it was released, but has become a cult favorite with the rise in popularity of poker tournaments. I saw it in theaters when I was 14, because my father recommended it based on the high caliber of talented actors, and I thought, "It's about poker, and I don't know anything about it. Why would I be interested in this?" But I saw it, and loved the gritty noir vibe of it, and the stellar cast that rounded out the film.

Mike (Damon) is a gifted poker player, who uses his earnings to pay his law school tuition, and plays poker as a hobby and secret obsession. When he misses a shot in a game against Russian mobster Teddy KGB (Malkovich) and loses all of his $30,000, he is shaken up, and quits right then and there. He builds his life back from the ground up over the next nine months, working as a part-time delivery truck driver and dedicated to his girlfriend Jo (Mol) and succeeding in law school.

His childhood friend Worm (Norton) has just been released from prison, and is ready to get back into the poker game, despite Mike's reluctance. Worm owes a large debt to Teddy KGB and Gramma, another criminal associate, and needs Mike's help in paying it back. Mike and Worm have always been friends, but Worm has often pulled Mike into trouble with him, and has a habit of running away to let Mike take the heat for his actions. They get back into their cycle as "rounders," making a living playing underground card games around New York City, playing against tourists, mobsters, bar staff, prep school graduates, and whoever else they can find. As Mike would say, "If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, you are the sucker." It is a dangerous and risky game that Mike is playing, as he knows Worm's habits of letting his big mouth get out of hand and running away, but the lure of the game is too great for Mike to ignore.

Mike is torn between his loyalty to Worm, his loyalty to Jo, his loyalty to finishing law school, and his loyalty to his love of the game, following his gambling addiction. Mike is a good person who can straddle the worlds between the seedy side of NYC and the upper-class world of law school, but can't make a decision as to which world he should stick to.

The performances are solid. Damon and Norton work great together, and the contrast of their characters' personalities is palpable and electric: Mike is trying to live a straight life while being addicted to the mind games of poker, sizing up his opponents and waiting for the right move; while Worm is impulsive, wriggly, and goes with his impulses, not thinking about the future or the whole picture. A lot of their scenes are of them arguing together, but in more of a ying and yang way, trying to work together to fit as one piece in order to pay their huge debt within a week. The characters often talk in poker terms as analogies, or casually dropping poker jargon into their speech. It is a unique and interesting way of speech, and adds to the unique elements of this film as a noir piece.

Another contrast with Mike and Worm is Mike's friend Joey Knish (Turturro), who plays to make money for rent, alimony, child support, and not for the rush of the game or for winning a large pot. He has managed to keep a secure sense of himself within this dangerous world, and is positioned as a likely role model for Mike to follow.

Famke Janssen has a small but memorable role as a friend who works in an underground poker club. Janssen at the time was known as a Bond Girl in Goldeneye, and was building her acting skills in small roles in independent and lower-budget films, as not to be typecast by her stunning looks. She is a gorgeous woman, but has this sultry, laid-back air about her, like a woman who knows how to read men and not get caught up in the dangerous games of mobsters and hustlers. She has a warm and low voice, and keeps an intriguing presence in the film, a mysterious person who was one of my favorite characters in the film.

The only fault that I have with the film is Malkovich's over-the-top performance as Teddy KGB. Luckily, he only appears in the prologue and the finale of the film, but his exaggerated accent and scenery-chewing performance is distracting, and takes away from the gritty noir of the film into someone ridiculous and cartoonish. His character is important to the film, as his name is mentioned many times as a dangerous figure, but Malkovich's performance is garish, and takes what should be a menacing and dangerous character, and turns him into a joke. The casting of Malkovich is the one misstep in an otherwise great film.

Rounders is one of my favorite films, and is overlooked when Matt Damon and Edward Norton's careers are discussed in the media, as I believe they give some of their best performances in this film. John Dahl excels at noir, as seen in the brilliant The Last Seduction in 1994. I highly recommend this film, and it is currently streaming on Netflix.

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