Rounders (1998) starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, Martin Landau, Famke Janssen directed by John Dahl Movie Review

Rounders (1998)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Matt Damon as Mike McDermott in Rounders

Taking a Gamble on Damon and Norton

It seems that over the last decade the game of Poker has become increasingly popular, with tournaments and games being held on TV most nights of the week, you can even buy your own chips and gambling tables in high street shops. So it is no surprise that the men behind the movies would attempt to tap into this current fad with a glossy, star studded movie about the world of poker. Whilst in "Rounders" they have certainly achieved in making a very engrossing, slick drama, they have failed to portray the life of a gambler in anything but a glamorous light.

Mike McDermott (Matt Damon - Saving Private Ryan) a promising young student and avid poker player manages to lose all his money in one big game with the Russian Mafia. Vowing to never play again he sets about sorting out his life through hard work. Nine months later and seemingly able to keep his addiction in check things take a turn for the worse when his best friend, Lester 'Worm' Murphy (Edward Norton - The Incredible Hulk) is released from prison and convinces him to start playing again. Suddenly Mike finds himself in over his head as Lester runs up considerable gambling debts in his name.

Edward Norton as Lester 'Worm' Murphy in Rounders

The concept behind "Rounders" of an ex-gambler being dragged back into the world of high stakes poker is actually quite good and sort of demonstrates the allure of the cards that any gambler has. But sadly the writers have failed to capitalize on this interesting premise by not only failing to show the life of a gambler realistically but also focussing too heavily on the drama at the poker tables than away from it. These two major faults combine to make what is quite a flawed movie although one which still manages to maintain a certain amount of audience interest.

The faults start quite early on in "Rounders" and after we see Mike lose a huge amount of money he seems to be able to walk away from Poker without any problems. Anyone who has ever had a gambling addiction be it poker or slot machines will soon tell you this is near on impossible and the lure of the cards will always tempt you. The writers do redeem themselves slightly as they attempt to show that even after 9 months he still has the mind of a Poker player but they could have done so much more to demonstrate how difficult it is for a gambler to walk away.

This problem with not being realistic carries on throughout "Rounders" and when Mike returns to the table which in turn causes his relationship with his girlfriend to end as well as his future as a lawyer, he doesn't even bat an eyelid, in fact he laughs it off and heads for the poker tables again. Part of the issue with "Rounders" is that it is trying to be fast paced and in doing so has caused the problem with the lack of realism by skimming over things which are important, such as any real back history to the characters. One of the worst cases of this attempt to be fast paced happens when Mike and Lester take a huge beating for cheating at a card game, but they seemingly manage to pull themselves up off the street and get straight back on with things.

Another huge issue is with the dialogue in the movie, as it is littered with technical references to the game of Poker. Now I am no novice at playing Poker (nor an expert), but most of this dialogue went straight over my head leaving me wondering what on earth they were on about. This is heightened by the movie relying on a narration from the character Mike where he attempts to enlighten us to the mind of a Poker player. Sadly this fails to really work due to the fact that what he says is so full of technical mumbo jumbo that it distracts you from what is happening on the screen. That is not to say the writers have done a terrible job with "Rounders", far from it and I can honestly say that there is enough drama and action to keep you focussed on the screen, especially when they show one of the many poker games which feature in the film.

I also feel the characters and the cast seriously let "Rounders" down, and for a movie which is billed as having a star studded cast I feel a little bit cheated. The problems with the characters come from the fact that the movie doesn't really stop to give us any real back history. Yes there is the narration which drops a few clues to why Mike and Worm are best buddies, but I felt it incredibly hard to really get a feel for the characters and also struggled as to why Mike remained loyal to Lester despite his cheating. This is a huge point for me when it comes to how much I enjoy a movie, especially a drama, as I need to be able to relate to and understand the actions of the main characters. I also felt that the casting of Matt Damon in the lead was a huge mistake as he just doesn't show any emotion at all. If you could ever criticize someone of monotone acting it is Matt Damon in "Rounders". Saying that, he looked amazingly comfortable round the card tables and you really got a sense that he knew what he was doing.

My issues with the cast don't just stop at Damon and also found Norton incredibly hard to relate to. My main problem with Norton is that he just doesn't look convincing as a quick talking card hustler and although he handled a deck of cards efficiently his mannerisms didn't fit the character. Where I feel really cheated by the film is the labelling of it as a star studded cast. Whilst I cannot deny that the movie has some remarkable actors and actresses in it, such as John Turturro, John Malkovich, Famke Jannsen, Gretchen Mol and Martin Landau, "Rounders" focuses so strongly on Damon's character and to some extent Norton's character that these big names are nothing more than bit players.

Although I have huge issues with the way "Rounders" glamorises the life of a card player, and skims over much of the nasty side. I have to admit that director John Dahl has done a very good job in making a fast paced, slick drama which will undoubtedly appeal to the legions of Poker fans. His style of shooting the poker scenes is brilliant and the mood he creates with the effective use of lighting really assists the film. I just wish he had taken the time to give us a better look at each of the characters allowing us to relate to them in a greater way than we can as the movie stands.

What this all boils down to it that whilst the idea for "Rounders" is indeed very good the fact that it fails to paint the world of Poker in anything but a positive light is rather disappointing. Yes it does to some degree show the allure of the game to gamblers and does attempt to show how the addictiveness of the game affects your life, but it never does it to the extent that it feels real. Of course "Rounders" is nothing more than a slick action drama about the world of Poker and to paint it in a truly realistic light would have probably put many a viewer off of watching it.