In his review, Roger Ebert compared Rounders to Rocky, and it’s certainly apropos: Over the course of the film, poker player Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) gets demolished in a high-stakes game, staggers away in humiliation, and slowly hones his talent for one last shot at the title. At the same time, Rounders also sent my mind to Bull Durham, the pinnacle of baseball movies. In that film, baseball wasn’t so much a sport as a religion, built on poetry, with lessons that unlocked the secrets of life. It’s much the same in Rounders, where Damon’s character gleans everything he needs to know from the mechanics of Texas hold ’em. The great players are revered like apostles, and their winning beats get studied like gambling miracles.
In the opening sequence, Mike squares off against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a made man in the Russian mafia. KGB takes Mike for every nickel he has, breaking his very spirit for good measure. We then cut to a couple years later, and see our hero living as a repentant drunk: Mike drives a delivery truck, fumbles his way through law school, and dates Jo (Gretchen Mol), buttoned-down classmate. She fears he will fall off the gambling wagon, and watches him with an eagle eye.
Everything changes when Mike happens upon a poker game of powerful judges. Once there, he reads every hand, based simply on each judge’s demeanor. Everyone is impressed, especially Judge Petrovsky (Martin Landau), Mike’s professor and spiritual advisor. Petrovsky wonders if his student’s destiny might lie outside the law, in more ways than one.
Things get even livelier when Worm (Edward Norton), Mike’s boyhood friend, gets released from prison. Their philosophies on poker couldn’t be more different: Mike approaches the game like a purist; his success must fall within the rules. Worm is an old-fashioned con man, always on the lookout for new angles to separate a fool from his money. The latter’s style is more adventurous, but it also comes with great risk. After a few days on the outside, Worm gets in deep with all he wrong people.
Of course, Worm’s not the sort to drown by himself. He quickly clings to Mike’s good name for dear life, and attaches it to his mounting debt. This puts Mike in an inevitable bind: To rescue them both, he’ll have to turn to the game that once broke him. In the film’s second half, Mike starts back up the mountain, in what will become a life-and-death struggle for redemption.
When Rounders first hit theaters, it was met with middling reviews and box office. Many dismissed the film as a beautiful piece of plastic, another neo-noir clone with nothing under its surface. Over time, Texas hold ’em caught on as a cultural phenomenon, and Rounders became a cult classic.
After more than two decades, the film holds up incredibly well. The voiceover narration, normally the gold standard for lazy screenwriting, actually elevates the story. Damon’s weary voice peppers the audience with a plethora of colorful poker terminology and vintage aphorisms, so much that it might take a few listens to absorb it all. Director John Dahl (Red Rock West) builds an effective film noir drama, replete with dimly lit rooms, billowing cigarette smoke, and cheap booze. Interestingly, the femme fatale here is the game of poker itself, which manipulates the characters in ways they don’t fully understand.
Those eccentric characters are played by a top-notch crew of 90s talent: Damon and Norton deliver excellent performances, as always. Their brotherly love stretches with tension until it ultimately snaps. John Turturro brings understated brilliance as Joey Knish, a poker lifer known for never taking big risks. Martin Landau’s Petrovsky is the wise grandfather Mike desperately needs, even if his counsel seems to steer his foster grandson back to the poker table. Finally, there’s Malkovich. Armed with a Russian accent best described as…abstract, his Teddy KGB is a goofy, histrionic masterpiece. He chews the scenery, and a fair amount of Oreos, in an unhinged way that this grim movie desperately needs. If there was ever a time to give John Malkovich an Academy Award, this was probably it.
The film’s biggest flaw lies in the Jo character. She exists solely to be a wet blanket, rifling through Mike’s pockets and quizzing him off in all of her scenes. In a way, I get it. Mike was once dumb enough to blow his tuition money on a hand of poker, so he probably bears close watching. At the same time, Jo is consistently dumbfounded that there’s a lot more to poker than just luck. She greets his beliefs on the game with stares of disbelief. They’re a terrible couple, and a breakup would benefit them both. If the screenwriters had rendered Jo into something more than just a bitchy girlfriend, maybe the love angle of Rounders could’ve been saved. As is, her annoying character damn near capsizes the whole movie. (And that’s not to blame Mol. She’s been good in plenty of other movies. The script just puts her in a corner.)
Thankfully, Rounders has more than enough positive traits to still make it a must-watch. We can’t help but root hard for Mike, as he undergoes the Rocky Balboa journey: In the end, all he wants is the validation that he can hang with the very best. On top of that, the characters in this film grapple with the same spiritual conundrum in Bull Durham: How can they keep giving their love, their possessions, and even their very lives to a game that may not always love them back? This is a great film, and well worth a new look.
121 min. R. HBOMax.