If Martha Stewart were to make Rounders, here’s how she would do it. She would take one serving of the movie Rocky. From that she’d take out Sylvester Stalone, not cute enough for her. She’d also take out the boxing, too violent for her. Then she’d add Matt Damon in place of Sylvester Stalone, cute to her. Also she’d change boxing to poker. To make the film a bit more attractive, we add some sugar and spice, Famke Janssen (GoldenEye) and newcomer Gretchen Mol. Stir until there are no lumps, bake for two hours, take out of the oven and let cool for another ten minutes.
Rounders, though it doesn’t seem like it at first, is a typical sports film. The protagonist, Mike McDermott (Damon), opens the film losing everything he has to a master poker player, Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). He then falls into a state of acceptance that what he’d done was all wrong. That is, until some external force, this time a character named Worm (Edward Norton), brings the protagonist back into the fringes of the sport. In Rounders, it’s poker, where he must go through an uphill battle to try to regain his confidence in the sport. And in a typical sports film, in order for the protagonist to regain his confidence he needs to face the person he lost it all to in the beginning of the film.
Rounders shows us where real poker is played. Real poker is not played in the glitzy casinos. No, real poker is played in smoky black rooms. Real poker players can figure out what the other players’s hands are doing just by watching their reaction as they get their cards. Real poker is a game where you can lose everything you have in a hand.
As formulaic as Rounders sounds, it’s quite a good character study of the two main characters, McDermott and Worm. McDermott is the guy who thinks that he’s escaped the draw and glitter of poker but really hasn’t. Worm is the risk-taking self-destructive character who could win it all straight, but still cheats to win just for the thrill.
Damon, who seems almost typecast as the “smart normal guy” plays McDermott not too differently than he did with Will Hunting (Good Will Hunting). Which is not a bad thing, especially for Rounders. We feel for McDermott as he gets dragged deeper and deeper into the underground poker rooms.
Norton, who was brilliant in Primal Fear, turns up another great performance in Rounders. He plays his character Worm as an unpredictable, self-loving, and self-destructive person who will risk even his life for a thrill.
Newcomer Gretchen Mol isn’t given much to do. She gets relegated to the role of the whiny girlfriend who lives in a boring - and unneeded - melodramatic subplot. Also the beautiful Famke Janssen is also given nothing to do but to smile and walk around in alluring dresses.
Worth mentioning is John Malkovich as Teddy KGB. Malkovich is just fun to watch. His Teddy KGB likes to eat Oreo cookies, slowly chewing on them and enjoying the cookies. Malkovich, like his Teddy KGB, likes to use his Russian accent. He takes his Russian accent and slowly chews on it and enjoys it. Malkovich steals the screen.
Director John Dahl keeps Rounders from sliding into boring seriousness by slipping in some funny moments throughout the film. The humor keeps the film moving. I loved how the poker players hit the casinos and play against unsuspecting tourists. At the casinos, none of them are playing as allies, but they still end up taking money from the tourists like candy from a baby.
The ending to Rounders is not hard to guess, especially given what kind of film Rounders is. And it is the predictability of the film that makes it a bit hard to sit through its running time. I wish the writers and film makers would have taken a chance, a risk, like the poker players, and put in a ending worthy of the film. I recommend Rounders if you have a spare two hours to spend.
Edited by Cher Johnson.
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