John Dahl’s Rounders has picked up a cult following since its release in the late 1990s, primarily among poker enthusiasts, but even if you don’t know your flop from your river there’s still some enjoyment to be had from this over-the-top modern noir.
Dahl’s reputation as one the most overlooked American directors of the 1990s is really due to the quality of two other films he made during that decade, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, but Rounders is a reasonably captivating finish to this trilogy of noirs. (Dahl also made the ironically-named sci-fi flick Unforgettable in 1996, which was a commercial and critical flop, and the director returned to his preferred genre afterwards with apparent alacrity.) The Last Seduction and Red Rock West are excellent twisty, turny crime thrillers that feature – at the heart of each story – two different types of anti-hero with some shared characteristics: a hangdog ex-forces drifter and a calculating city dweller on the run; both have dubious morals and both are looking to make some quick, easy money.
The same can be said of the two rounders (expert players who travel around seeking out high stakes games) that are central to this film’s plot of. The squeakier, cleaner one is Matt Damon’s Mike, a brilliant (yeah, whatever) law student who is also a well-known face (yeah, whatever) in New York’s high stakes underground poker scene; the other is a fast-talking card shark named Worm (Ed Norton in what was accurately described at the time of release as ‘the Sean Penn role: … hideous shirts, screw-you attitude’ by the critic Owen Gleiberman). Childhood friends and long-time poker buddies they may be, but the straight-playing Mike is tiring of bailing his old cheating pal out of trouble, and their friendship is tested to the limit when Worm runs up a debt of $15,000 to John Malkovich’s ludicrous Russian gangster Teddy KGB via a sleazy pimp named Grama (Michael Rispoli). Conveniently for everyone involved Mike agrees to help Worm raise the money in a race against time, as he also wants to get one over on the arrogant Teddy: the Russian beats the prodigy during an illegal poker match in the film’s opening scene and pockets his savings of $30,000. Thus much of the film plays out in the classic sports movie style we’ve all seen countless times before: the hero is beaten at the beginning of the story, spends the rest of the time getting back up to his former level (with a few ups and downs along the way) and then gets another shot at the reigning champ at the end. If it was boxing rather than poker we’d be watching Rocky. If it was arm wrestling we’d be watching Over The Top. And so on.
Though the story is set in the modern day, Damon’s narration – which helpfully explains some of the finer points and manoeuvres of the poker matches that are shown on screen for the uninitiated – is straight out of a Dalshiel Hammett hard-boiled detective novel. It certainly helps Rounders to stand out from the pack, but as a stylistic device it’s nowhere near as convincing as the dialogue of, say, the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, a film that was partly inspired by Hammett’s work and crucially set in the relevant era. Several years after Rounders was released Rian Johnson attempted something similar with his idiosyncratic debut Brick, with greater success, though in fairness Damon does pretty well with the lines he must read. Unfortunately it jars a little with the way the character interacts with others in the story; narration aside Mike is a distant cousin to Damon’s Will in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, so the sudden impersonations of Bogart on the soundtrack feel a little incongruous, and forced.
Unfortunately Rounders is fairly predictable fayre, and the most disappointing aspect of the story is the number of one-dimensional characters, which begin to stack up like poker chips. Poor old Gretchen Mol is given little to work with as Mike’s long-suffering girlfriend Jo, a fellow law student whose sole duty in the film is to express her disappointment and frustration with his poker-playing ways: he insists the game is a skill and luck isn’t involved, while she rightly points out that losing $30,000 on one hand isn’t very skilful at all (and bizarrely when she does eventually leave him it’s because he bails on a study group, as opposed to fact he gives up a small fortune to someone called ‘Teddy KGB’ in an underground Russian gangster-sponsored poker game).
Famke Janssen fares even worse in a role that could have easily been a much more interesting femme fatale type (especially given that Dahl had previously made films that included fascinating characters played by Linda Fiorentino and Lara Flynn Boyle). A cashier / manager at one of Mike’s regular poker haunts named Petra, Janssen’s performance seems understandably lethargic, and she is given almost nothing to do until the entirely foreseeable lunge at the leading man’s lips. It’s a shame that the screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien doesn’t really offer much in the way of interesting female roles.
Elsewhere John Turturro pops up from time-to-time as Mike’s friendly poker mentor Joey Knish, appearing regularly in poker clubs and university canteens to dispense sage-like advice which is rarely followed (this despite him being introduced as a wise man who has been there and done that in the narration). Martin Landau plays the film’s most sympathetic male character, an elderly law school professor and father figure who is so kind he even lends Mike $10,000 for a poker stake at one point with very few questions asked.
The villain of the piece – Malkovich’s mobster – isn’t really in the story all that much, appearing in two long scenes that booked the movie, although given the actor’s scenery-chewing here perhaps that is no bad thing. If you thought Malkovich was over the top in Con Air as ‘Cyrus The Virus’ then you should watch his performance in Rounders: with nothing but stacks of Oreo cookies and poker chips to work with he takes ‘I am the designated bad guy here’ signposting to new, previously-unseen levels, all unsubtly underlined with a terrible accent: ‘Mr. Zon ov a bitch, letz play some cardz!’ will give you a rough idea of what to expect. It is fun, though.
For the most part the film focuses on the bromance between Mike and Worm. Although both leads have been better they do supply the requisite energy (Norton) and charisma (Damon), and they have some good scenes together (although both over-do the ‘let’s establish the strength and longevity of our friendship by trading insults and reminiscing about some casually-tossed in names from back in the day’ moments). Neither character is particularly believable: Damon just about convinces as a high-stakes poker player but looks out of place in the city’s sleazier joints and the actor struggles with the supposedly easier boyfriend / law student duties, whereas Norton’s Worm never strays far away from being one of those typical smart-arses that only exists in the movies. The pair suffer occasionally from poor writing at times, though: a scene in which Worm is waved out of prison by tough-looking fellow inmates and later describes the experience to Mike as ‘a piece of cake’ is truly awful.
So far so bad, but overall Rounders is an enjoyable film to lose yourself in, and that’s primarily because of the poker scenes. Here the writing is better and Dahl’s direction lets us in on the plays: we get to see what the hero is holding, the bluffs and surprises in single games feel like genuine mini plot twists and we get a good sense of what this whole underground scene is like. The glitz and glamour of Vegas is far away, and the speakeasy dives where games take place aren’t particularly pleasant, but they do make for interesting sets populated with interesting-looking extras. With definite winners and losers the matches are actually quite exciting to follow; little wonder the film is liked by so many poker fans. The one shame is that the film’s best scene – in which Norton attempts to rip off a bunch of off-duty cops – comes just before the final high stakes game between Oreo-snapping Teddy and legal eagle Mike.
This may be Dahl’s most commercially-successful movie to date but it isn’t anywhere near the quality of his best two. The noir elements are implemented with genuine affection for the genre but unfortunately they don’t translate smoothly to late 1990s New York in this instance. As such Rounders never quite feels right, never feels as though it has fully kicked into gear, but there are enough regular blips of action in the poker sequences to warrant a viewing. Decent throwaway fun, and that’s no bad thing.
Directed by: John Dahl
Written by: David Levien, Brian Koppelman
Starring: Matt Damon, Ed Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Martin Landau
Running Time: 121 minutes