Rounders introduces us to the world of high-stakes poker. With an electric cast, and some apt direction, it transforms a run-of-the-mill storyline into a fascinating movie.
Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a master poker player. He claims that poker is not a game of chance…it’s a game of skill, and he can rank with the best. But when a bad stroke of luck proves him wrong, he swears off the game and concentrates on a law career, much to the delight of his girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol).
However, things are about to change. Mike’s longtime best friend, Worm (Edward Norton), has just gotten out of jail. Needless to say, Worm is a bad influence upon Mike, and sooner than you can shuffle a deck, Mike is being drawn back into the world of high-stakes poker.
The story is a familiar one, but told with a surprising amount of freshness and energy. Matt Damon provides narration throughout the movie, and this is actually one of the few examples of where narration actually works. The narrative doesn’t preclude action on the screen, rather, it is a counterpoint. Damon provides an insight into the mind and strategy of a genius at work.
The games of poker themselves are fun to watch, but you don’t have to be an aficionado to enjoy them. John Dahl’s insightful direction highlights the moods and strategies of the game, rather than the mundane details. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t really matter that they are playing poker here. The game of choice could be chess, bowling, or hopscotch…it merely serves as the vehicle from which the characters are introduced.
And what an assortment of characters! Damon’s congeniality works well in the central role. He’s a character you instinctively want to root for. Norton, on the other hand, sort of creeps up on you. He’s an odd mix of treachery and charm. Even though he keeps on doing the wrong thing, you can’t help but like the guy.
The supporting cast boasts the likes of John Malkovich, John Turturro and Martin Landau. Malkovich is the slimy Teddy KGB, a master poker player with ties into the Russian mafia. His mannerisms border at times at being over the top, but because his character is played with such relish, it’s a forgivable sin. Turturro is Joey Knish, a “grinder”, who makes a living on the poker circuit. He admires Mike’s skill, but is also wary of a dangerous streak, and often tries to give him advice. Landau is a sympathetic judge who is teaching Mike in law school.
Of the supporting cast, only the women (both Gretchen Mol and Famke Janssen as Mike’s former poker-playing flame) don’t get any meat. They’re stuck playing questionable roles that seem to exist merely to keep this from being an all-male cast.
Just like Mike can sum up the status of a poker game with a few careful glances, after a few scenes, you know pretty well where the movie is going. However, it’s a fun game, and at times worth it just to watch the masters at play.