During 1998, a common movie-goer would’ve thought that any movie starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton (not to mention John Malkovich and John Turturro) couldn’t be anything less that stellar. In the case of Rounders, there are just a few things missing, or done poorly, that keep it from being truly memorable.
The movie opens with Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) losing a 30k bank-roll to a Russian caricature, Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), in a high-stakes Texas Hold ‘Em match. Broken, Mike decides to quit gambling, despite being an obvious prodigy, and live life on the straight-edge; he even drives a delivery truck to put himself through law school.
In a twist of fate, he gets wind that his friend Worm (Edward Norton) is being released from prison, so he agrees to pick him up. Worm, being the perfect foil, wants to get right back into the scene to pay off some debts he accumulated before going to prison. Before long, Worm wraps Mike up in the same debt and convinces him that rounding is the only way to make things right.
As Mike tries to balance his girlfriend, a law degree, and rounding at the same time, he gets in over his head and ends up not only losing said girlfriend, but failing his law classes at the same time. After he learns that the debt is considerably higher than Worm let on in the beginning, and his connected to the Russian mobster Teddy KGB, Mike is forced to take out a personal loan from one of his professors and put it all on the line one last time against the man who took all of his money less than a year ago.
Rounders does have a unique style. In a call-back to noir movies of the past, Mike narrates much of the film in a dark, mysterious way. To add to that, much of the movie is wide-angle and quite dark– from a visual perspective. Deep shadows, most of the movie takes place at night, you get the idea. I’m not entirely sure why this choice was made, maybe because poker evokes similar emotions, but it was effective.
However, there are just too many inconsistencies in character motivation (why exactly does his law professor want to give him 10k?) and odd acting choices (why does it feel as though Malkovich is mocking every Russian ever?) for the movie to overcome. On top of that, the movie is laden with a ton of poker jargon and some, frankly, uninteresting poker scenes. For a movie about a subject that touts high-stakes, Rounders feels like quite a slog throughout most of the second act.
Matt: Watch if you have interest in poker Gabe: Watch it