With perhaps the most foul language so far this year and some nudity and violence, the pagan and predictable ROUNDERS paints an entertaining but ultimately unbelievable picture of the world of professional poker players in the seedier streets of New York. It stars Matt Damon and Edward Norton as two childhood chums who try to pay off a debt to some mobsters by playing high-stakes poker.
In GOOD WILL HUNTING, Hollywood’s new preppie star, Matt Damon, gave an excellent performance as a young working-class man, filled with angst and searching for his place in an emotionally dangerous world. In the new movie ROUNDERS, Damon gives a serviceable performance as a real preppie filled with angst and searching for his place in an emotionally and physically dangerous world.
Damon stars as Mike McDermott, a law school student whose real calling is to be a professional poker player. Mike has become expert at winning a little money at a time. He is a real “rounder,” a player who knows all the angles and grinds out his living at the poker table.
“If you’re too careful,” Mike feels, “your life can become a grind.” Therefore, in the beginning of ROUNDERS, Mike decides to risk all his savings for the rest of his law school tuition in a game of Texas Hold’em against Teddy KGB, a leader of the local Russian mafia who runs the biggest game in town. Teddy is played by actor John Malkovich in a goofy but somehow endearing performance. Of course, Mike loses and has to promise his live-in girlfriend and classmate Jo, played by Gretchen Mol, that he’ll stop playing poker.
To make ends meet, Mike’s poker mentor Joey Knish, played by John Torturro in another fine bit of acting, gets Mike a job driving a delivery truck. Knish advises Mike to grind it out and stop looking for the big payoff.
Regrettably for our hero, Mike’s childhood friend “Worm,” played by Edward Norton of PRIMAL FEAR and THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, gets out of prison after taking the rap for a minor crime that he and Mike pulled before Mike’s law school gig. Worm is a good friend to Mike, but he is also a cheat and a liar. Without Jo’s knowledge, Mike stakes Worm to some poker games. Unbeknownst to Mike, Worm owes $15,000 to a loan shark who is now working for Teddy KGB. Eventually, Worm loses both Mike’s stake and his earnings from the stake, so Mike must go on a poker-playing binge, or else his friend will be grist for the meat grinder. Things don’t go well, however, when Worm gets caught cheating, and now Mike has to play Teddy KGB in a high-stakes game to save his own hide.
With perhaps the most foul language in any movie so far this year, and some nudity and violence, ROUNDERS paints an entertaining but ultimately unbelievable picture of the world of professional poker players in the seedier streets of New York. The plot is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s famous portrait of small-time hoods, 1973’s MEAN STREETS, where ne’er-do-well Robert DeNiro asks his boyhood chum Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, to intervene with a loan shark on his behalf.
Damon and Norton do well playing two young pagans trying to win back the money to pay off Norton’s debts, but they just don’t inhabit their characters the way DeNiro and Keitel did. Damon and Norton can’t seem to shake their preppie look, no matter how hard they try, and even though Norton has had the makeup people tattoo his arm so that the audience will see that Worm always has “an ace up his sleeve.”
Although it is fun to watch Mike, then Mike and Worm, and finally Mike alone again try to beat the odds in the unique milieu of high-stakes poker, ROUNDERS eventually becomes too predictable. It is clear that Worm just isn’t able to let well enough alone and always must be looking for the crooked angle that will give him an edge. It is also too clear that eventually Mike will find out that “ya gotta be yourself” and follow his dream of playing in the world series of poker in Vegas. There is also a silly scene where Mike’s Jewish law school professor, played by Martin Landau, mawkishly describes how he found out that the legal profession was his true calling and not the rabbinic career that all his fathers before him entered. The movie’s last shot is in fact similar to the last shot in Damon’s GOOD WILL HUNTING. Discerning viewers may want to fold their cards, and keep their money, when it comes to seeing ROUNDERS.
(PaPa, LLL, VV; S; NN, AA, D, B, M) Pagan worldview of professional poker players & friend of hero who cheats at cards; 150 obscenities, 20 profanities & at least 10 vulgarities; cops beat up two men when one man cheats at cards, mobster brutally pushes man around in bar & threats of violence for not paying debt; implied oral sex, student shacks up with girlfriend, ex-con goes out to find prostitute, & some minor sexual references & innuendo; upper female nudity & skimpy outfits in strip club & in mobster's "office"; alcohol use & drunkenness; smoking; and, minor reference to man's earlier training to be a rabbi, loan sharking, lying, gambling, cheating at poker, & card hustling.