#TBT Reviews: Rounders (1998)

As of the time of publishing, this film is available to stream on Netflix US

I always enjoy seeing where famous people come from, career-wise. Even if it isn’t something great on it’s own, watching an early performance from a household name is a lot of fun for me. While Rounders isn’t the first film for either Matt Damon or Edward Norton, it’s still fairly early for both. Damon’s major roles were in films like Good Will Hunting and Saving Private Ryan, whereas Norton debuted with Primal Fear and went on to work with Woody Allen and Milos Forman before this film.

They were both essentially made men by this point considering each of them had already been nominated for acting Oscars (and Damon won a writing Oscar), but this film helped confirm them as true movie stars to a wider audience.

So what’s the big deal about Rounders? Gambling movies aren’t that good anyway, are they?

Let’s find out.

I’m not sure that I’ll do too much plot stuff because this is fairly by the books, and I don’t mean that as a critique necessarily. Surprises aren’t necessary for quality, and some great films tread familiar ground. Anyways.

We immediately meet Mike McDermott (Damon), a very gifted poker player and law school student. He narrates the opening as he plays against a man they call “Teddy KGB” (played by a delightfully over-the-top John Malkovich), but he makes a mistake and loses his entire $30,000 bankroll. His girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) makes him quit playing poker in order to focus on school. His mentor Joey Knish (John Turturro) gives him a side job driving a truck and delivering packages.

Things change when Mike’s childhood friend is released from prison. Lester Murphy (Norton), called “Worm” by everyone, is not nearly as talented of a card player. Worm is a massive cheater, and walks out of prison to a pretty big debt still waiting for him on the outside. He is given five days to amass $15,000. Since Mike feels sorry for his longtime pal, he agrees to go against his own best interests and help him win the money.

The rest of the film mostly follows Mike and Worm as they go from place to place trying to cover the debt, which is also essentially the definition of a “rounder”. Clever, huh?

Rounders is far from a perfect film, but it also doesn’t want or need to be. It succeeds almost exclusively on the charm of it’s two leads, as Damon and Norton are pretty much always good-to-great. Part of me does wonder what would happen if they switched roles, with Norton playing the straight-laced man fighting an addiction and Damon as the cheating sleazeball. While that might have been more interesting, they’re definitely better suited in the roles they took.

The supporting cast doesn’t get too much room to shine, but very special props should go to Martin Landau, who plays one of Mike’s professors. Landau delivers a monologue about how he was almost a mobster when he was younger, and it’s one of the strongest scenes in the whole film.

I don’t even know much about cards, but the film makes it easy enough to follow while still giving some heft to certain plays that are made, ensuring that the audience understands the stakes of the game even if they miss some of the intricacies. In fact, several professional poker players have claimed that Rounders is the sole reason that they began playing.

Rounders is far from a film that I feel the need to rave about, and there’s a fairly good chance that I might not remember having watching it by the end of the year, but I’m far from upset that I’ve seen it. It was a genuinely enjoyable two hours held up by the charm of two talented movie stars, and I believe it to be worth the visit if you have time and don’t want to work too hard on your viewing.

Nick Potter

Co-founder of The Filmsmiths. Degree in Broadcast & Cinematic Arts with a minor in Cinema Studies from Central Michigan University. Pretty much the barbecue sauce of people but I'm doing my best.

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