“We can’t run from who we are. Our destiny chooses us.” Mike McDermott
The idea inherent in the above quote is woven throughout the movie Rounders like a thread in a fine tapestry. For those that don’t know, Rounders is John Dahl’s 1998 noirish cult classic that looks at the world of poker players in underground card clubs NYC. I both love and loathe Rounders. I love it for its look, semi-noir aesthetic, writing, acting and just plain good time I have watching it. I loathe Rounders because it makes every chowder head that watches it think they can play poker and that messes up the rest of us at the table. I’m also upset with Rounders for more or less igniting the poker craze that hit around 1999/2000. Note to ESPN – Poker is not a sport.
Written by: Xiphos
As the movie begins we are introduced to our hero, Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, via what is usually, in my opinion, a lame plot device: the flashback and voice over although for this film narration works and works well. Mike decides that after bluffing World Poker champion Johnny Chan (played by the real Johnny Chan) down in Atlantic City that he is ready to break out of his small time ways and take a run at the most feared poker player in New York City, Russian mobster Teddy KGB played by a scenery chewing John Malkovich.
Armed with three stacks of high society ($30,000, it’s the little details like that which make the movie realistic) Mike wakes up one night and heads off to Teddy’s greasy and sweaty looking little poker crib to do battle with the fearsome Teddy KGB. Mike does not fare well, he gets his clock cleaned by Teddy and loses all his money which included his rent, school and case money (walking around cash/playing bank roll).
Jump ahead several months and we find Mike working a delivery truck for Joey Knish played John Turturro, a successful professional rounder who makes a living “grinding” it out at the poker tables of New York and Atlantic City. He’s also a guy who helps rounders who have lost their way, like Mike, with the truck gig . Mike has sworn off cards and is living a straight, albeit boring, life with his girlfriend Jo, played by Gretchen Mol, and attending law school. Into this domestic bliss is thrown an incendiary device, Mike’s life long friend who just got out of prison, Lester ‘Worm” Murphy, who torches Mike’s carefully constructed white picket fence fantasy life.
Worm is a card mechanic who’s motto is “If I see a sheep I shear him.” Worm also owes money to his former collector Grama played with sharp and effective menace by Michael Rispoli. While Worm was doing his jolt, Grama had gone around and bought up all of Worm’s debts to the tune of 15 large and gives Worm five days to pay or else. Because of Worm being a worm, he drags Mike into his problems and Mike ends up vouching for him so Worm’s debts are now Mike’s. The boys set out to clear Worm’s debt the only way they know how, poker. Unfortunately during the course of Worm and Mike’s 36 hour poker blitz, Worm decided to rip off a poker game full of cops with disastrous results. Mike and Worm get beaten down and lose the twelve grand they had raised and time was running out on them.
To make matters worse, Worm wants to run because Grama is backed by the scary Teddy KGB, a piece of info Worm neglected to tell Mike. Worm gets in the wind and Mike sets out to save himself. With a loan of 10Gs from his law school professor, Mike decides to go after Teddy again, head to head, over a game of Texas Hold ‘em.
That’s the overview of the story in case you have not watched the movie. What I want to talk about is why the movie works and works incredibly well. Especially for what could be considered a summer movie since it came out in early September of ’98. Unfortunately we are seeing less and less of these mid-range type of movies that take a chance on subjects out of the norm. It’s too bad since these sorts of movies usually are the best kind that Hollywood used to regularly create.
First off, the acting is strong across the board with Matt Damon leading the way. I’m not usually impressed by Damon all that much but if you give him the right material and a strong director he does good work. In Rounders, Damon shines as Mike McDermott, a man of honor living in a world that really isn’t honorable. Mike owes a debt to Worm because Worm took the weight for fixing a high school basketball game at the posh private school they attended. Worm and Mike weren’t silver spoon type kids. They were able to attend because their fathers worked at the school as janitors and yard guys.
Mike and Worm scammed their classmate relentlessly until one of the kids on the basketball team ratted out Worm who took the fall like a man. Since Worm didn’t snitch, Mike he gets to graduate, go to college and then law school. Worm goes on the hustle, gets busted for credit card fraud and does a nickel in prison over in New Jersey. Mike never forgot what Worm did for him and they stayed friends, much to Mike’s girlfriend’s disapproval.
Equally as strong as Damon was Edward Norton as Worm. That character, to say the least, was complicated to play. Norton was able to strike a balance of bravado, semi-honor and sleaziness which are characteristics that a person like Worm possesses. Norton was absolutely at the top of his game in this role and was great fun to watch.
John Malkovich, who sported the weirdest accent ever heard on film, was having a grand time chewing scenery in his small amount of screen time. John Turturro was equally as good at chewing scenery in a more subtle way as Joey Knish who was more or less one of Mike’s father figures in the movie since his own, like Worm’s, was worthless. The other was Professor Petrovsky played with precision by Martin Landau. Knish and Petrovsky are the fathers to both sides of McDermott’s conflicted psyche. The straight lawyer, living with a girlfriend side and the Rounder sort of outlaw fun side.
The rest of the cast was well suited for their roles. They all had a “lived” in look which was perfect for their characters that were from the edges of society. Also all the character actors looked “New York” which helped sell the reality of the movie. I would like to make special mention of Famke Janssen who played Petra, a rounder and manager of an off the books poker club. She was radiant in this movie and there is no way a 20 something year old male would turn down an opportunity to be with her. Janssen was also tough and vulnerable and very real in her portrayal of Petra.
The writing is sharp and insightful and it was obvious that the writers, David Levien and Brian Koppelman, did their research and spent a lot of time with rounders in the at games of NYC. The movie oozed with truth and had great hard boiled dialogue whiched added to the movie. A nod of the head must be given to New York City itself. It was smart to film the movie there. If they tried to use another city like Vancouver or the back lots in Hollywood as a substitute Rounders would have lost it’s keen edge of realism. You really can’t recreate NYC anywhere else.
Lastly kudos must get doled out to the film’s director John Dahl whose noir sensibility was perfectly suited for this movie. Rounders isn’t a true noir, it’s more noir-ish or noir-like. Truly what Rounders has is a very good noirish ascetic throughout the whole movie. One other key observation about the movie is the color palette which Dahl chose to shoot the movie in was absolutely dead on. The sort of light blue cast added to the film stock made the movie seem cool and icy which echoed perfectly the cold winds blowing through Mike McDermott’s life.
After a bunch of good to great movies I wonder why Dahl has been cast out of the ranks of movie direction and forced to work on mediocre to bad TV projects like Dexter, the last season of BSG, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and Breaking Bad. Dahl is much to good for lame projects like those and hopefully he bounces back soon. Hollywood needs guys like this, the generalist that turns out solid to top notch movies across different genres.
I would absolutely recommend Rounders, that is, if you enjoy getting lost in great movie making that has an attention to detail that most movies lack entirely and has an engrossing story that is well acted. I also recommend Rounders if you enjoy well made projects that are entertaining as all get out. Rounders fits all this to a T.