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'Rounders': Its Allure Is in the Cards
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 1998

  Movie Critic

Matt Damon is a card shark in "Rounders." (Miramax)

John Dahl
Matt Damon;
Edward Norton;
John Malkovich;
Famke Janssen;
John Turturro;
Martin Landau;
Gretchen Mol
Running Time:
2 hours, 7 minutes
For profanity and sexual innuendo
John Dahl's "Rounders" is full of tense poker scenes, where fortune rides on the snap of a card and the loft of a bluffer's eyebrow or how many times someone holding for real licks his lips, but it's not really about card playing. It's about talent, and whether you let it corrupt or liberate your character.

It watches card players touched with genius, so far up the pyramid, so into the ozone of jacks and clubs, they can feel the run of the numbers and memorize the sequence of the face cards. They can do more than count cards, they can alphabetize them. But as brilliant as they are as card sharks, they're better as people sharks: They read rubes like primers, from the wiggle of their nostrils to the eloquent language of their constricting larynxes. Then they take their money so adroitly the rubes don't even know it, except once in a while, when the rounders get greedy or arrogant – character, as corrupted by talent – and chaos ensues.

It makes one excellent point – you should be what you're meant to be, and if you know what that is, you're a lucky man. And if you've got the talent, you're even luckier. Mike McDermott knows exactly what he ought to be: a professional poker player, because he's got all the moves and can decode the semiotics of the table. But Mike – played with earnest gee-whiz charm by that earnest gee-whiz actor, Matt Damon – has allowed himself to grasp at the mainstream, to build dreams just as fragile as any daylight dreamer's. He's in law school, living with a beautiful fellow student (Gretchen Mol) and working on getting on uptown.

But the worm turns. Or rather, he gets out of jail. Worm (played by Edward Norton) is Mike's opposite; he's got the same advanced gifts for feeling the flow of the game, but he's addicted to cheating. He loves the wild side. He doesn't mind getting the stuff kicked out of him when he's caught, and he's at such a level, he doesn't really need to cheat. He just likes it, that's all. Norton is superb in one of the bad-boy roles that will probably color the shape of his career.

The game, I should add, is high-stakes poker as played in secret cribs all over Manhattan. If you have to ask where they are, you don't belong. It's a Russian-Jewish world, bathhouse-warm and numbers-intense, where smoking is not merely allowed it is encouraged. The king of this basement Biloxi is an emigre with outfit connection called Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), the steeliest of sharks and the hammiest of performers (what is that accent Malkovich is doing? Urdu? Uzbeki? Uzi?)

Worm and Mike love this world; it's where they belong, where they yearn to rule, where their talent decrees that they work out their fate, but Mike has given it all up and Worm has sworn to bring him back in. Worm's secret plot: to take himself hostage, to get himself so deep that Mike has to go in after him and give up any chance of ever returning to the surface. In other words, it has a happy ending.

The drama in "Rounders" really doesn't add up to much. As fascinating as the cast is, the movie doesn't have any new moves and takes us into a formula we've seen before in the small genre of hustling movies – Newman's Fast Eddie, hustling the big hustler himself, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason); or McQueen's poker knight in "The Cincinnati Kid," going against Edward G. Robinson. So it is that there's a big game at the end, with Mike playing Texas Hold 'Em for blood money against Teddy KGB. And alas, it turns on a subtlety to poker unknown to this George (three of a kind? that would beat two of a kind, right? But does it matter if they have different numbers and colors and stuff?)

Yet this isn't a movie where story matters that much: It's a movie of character and milieu, both of which it evokes brilliantly. Though it fizzles at the end, you won't leave it thinking, I need to go somewhere new. You've just been somewhere new.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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