Rated R - Running time: 1:55 - Released 9/11/98

Over the years, we have seen many gambling movies: The Hustler and its sequel, The Color Of Money. Indecent Proposal and its comedic counterpart, Honeymoon In Vegas. The Sting, The Cincinnati Kid, Rain Man, Oscar And Lucinda, etc., etc. All of these have either been funny or thought-provoking, or satisfying in some way. But John Dahl's Rounders is none of the above. Little more than a showcase for Matt Damon, Rounders captures all the cons of high-stakes poker and none of the pros. And yet Damon's character, Mike McDermott, never learns the difference. We're supposed to understand why Mike is attracted to the pastime, but I'll be darned if I can figure it out from the screenplay penned by newcomers David Levien and Brian Koppelman.

Mike is a recovering gambler who lost thousands of dollars to a Russian-born card shark named "KGB" (John Malkovich) while trying for the chance to compete in the World Series of Poker. After KGB cleaned him out, he quit the game and started working toward his law degree. His girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol), also a law student, supported him in his struggle, and the two of them lived together in humble security. But when Mike's friend "Worm" (Edward Norton) is released from prison, Mike soon begins the inevitable slide back into his old ways. He starts losing money and missing meetings, and Jo dumps him like a box of rocks.

Soon we learn that Worm has a large outstanding debt to a man called "Grama" (Michael Rispoli), who works with KGB. Grama makes it clear to Worm that if he doesn't pay off in a few days, he's going to be very uncomfortable. Since Worm is Mike's friend and former partner, Mike agrees to share the debt. So the two guys begin a dedicated playing spree, and every time Mike is almost winning, Worm gets caught cheating, and they both get thrown out on their ears. Tired yet? I was.

Finally, Mike has to go to his old law professor, Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau), to help bail him out. Luckily, Mike had made such a good impression on Abe that he is willing to clean out his savings even though Mike has quit school.

What is not explained by the Levien/Koppelman script is why Mike would so easily leave his legitimate life and go back into business with Worm, who is obviously nothing but trouble. We are told of Worm's expertise at cards, but all we really see is that he is an obnoxious punk who continually cheats and steals (even from his friends) and can't stop irritating the wrong people. Meanwhile, Abe, Jo, and the rest of Mike's law friends seem to be respectable people, yet he casts them aside like the seal off a new Bicycle deck.

The acting in this film is above average, and that's what saves it from being completely undistinguished. The obvious, astonishing exception is John Malkovich, an extremely talented actor, who seems to be concentrating so hard on his phony Russian accent and his Oreo cookies that he has forgotten to craft a character. But Damon continues to show why he was nominated for Best Actor last year, and Norton, Landau, and the others provide an adequate supporting cast. Rounders is another nice notch in Damon's belt and an excellent commercial for Oreos, but its destiny lies as a dust collector on the video store shelves. ***

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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