Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

"The film has an authenticity that cuts deep."

Poker is like heroin. An addiction. Most people don't know this. They imagine a boozy, smoked out, male bonding thing that keeps the guys off the streets and gives the ladies a night off. There have been famous games in movies before, always culminating in the One Big Hand. It has become a cliché.

Rounders isn't about the One Big Hand. It's about the condition, the inability to stay away, the danger and excitement, the adrenaline rush. It's not a luck game, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) says, you play the person, not the cards. It's psychological warfare, demanding discipline, concentration, skill at reading faces and calculating odds. "If you can't spot the sucker within half an hour at the table, you ARE the sucker."

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Mike is a law student, who lives in a nice apartment, with an even nicer girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Moll). Life is good, except he has to work at poxy delivery jobs to pay the rent, because nine months ago he lost his stash in a one-to-one with Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a ruthless Russian underground pokermeister. The over and underground New York games differ in their intensity and ambiance. You won't find fitted carpets at Teddy KGB's place. You'll find heavy henchmen in ugly clothes and a fistful of dedicated high stake players, who don't give a fig for the social graces.

Mike has "made promises", which means cold turkey. He has told Jo he won't touch cards again. When his old playing partner, Worm (Edward Norton) comes out of jail, the temptation is too much. Unlike Mike, who is educated enough in scamology, without necessarily applying it at every encounter, Worm is up for anything. Their friendship proves costly, when Worm's outstanding debt is passed on to Mike, which means they have to make 15 grand in five days, or Teddy KGB's hit squad carries out threats.

The film has an authenticity that cuts deep. David Levien and Brian Koppelman's script makes no concessions to those who think poker is a fire tool. It doesn't matter if you don't know the difference between a full house and a room to let. The characters carry the story. John Dahl, director of The Last Seduction, is interested in the look, feel and culture. He is interested in desperation.

Damon's performance is subtle and contained. He makes you feel every nuance of fear and trouble, as Mike burns his bridges, swept along by the need to save Worm's life and, eventually, his own. Norton is riveting. With every gesture, he conveys the arrogance and energy of a natural-born hustler. Few films have come close to understanding obsession, or realised the intellectual and emotional thrill of risking all there is on another man's bluff. Until now.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Rounders packshot
A gambler who has turned his back on the game, has to pick up the cards again to help out a pal.
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Director: John Dahl

Writer: David Levien, Brian Koppelman

Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Paul Cicero, John Turturro, Ray Iannicelli, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen, Merwin Goldsmith, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, Sonny Zito

Year: 1998

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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