Life is like a box of... no, wait - wrong movie. In Rounders instead we learn that life is a game of poker, and nobody knows what the next hand will bring.
“If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.” With those words begins the story of Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a slick card shark who has learned how to excel at playing both cards and people, but is still looking for his shot at the big time - the World Poker Championship. Mike is on his way to the big time when we join him, playing in a backroom game of no limit, Texas Hold’em, where $30,000 of his own money is at stake. Unfortunately he gets cocky, misreads opponent Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), and busts out.
Nine months later Mike is out of the game. He delivers boxes and works on his future by attending law school. He could join a game at any time, but he’s promised his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) that he’s done with cards - a promise he holds onto until his former partner “Worm” (Edward Norton) is released from prison. Worm is the type of friend where the old adage, “with friends like these, who needs enemies” holds true. Soon Worm has kept true to his name and wormed his way into debt, angering many of the people who run games in the area. His debts from before he went into prison are still outstanding as well, held by Grama (Michael Rispoli) who purchased them all with funds from KGB. Soon Mike is drawn back into the game, first to help his friend get started, and then to save both his and Worm’s hides.
The brilliance of Rounders is found in its performances. Most of the key actors in the film have made their careers off of over the top style roles. Malcovich is the perennial insane bad guy, Turturro is the whiny jewish guy, and Matt Damon just has to hold his ground against Ben Affleck. None of that past baggage comes into play in Rounders though. As in cards, the performances in the film are all about subtlety. Any of the card players say more with a look then with any of their lines in the movie, whether it’s a moment of desperation or revelation. Sure, Malcovich gets his chance to act big when his russian accented character gets angry, but it’s still the small subtle acting that really makes the movie. In a tale about card games and relationships, there’s no room for flashy special effects. The characters have to make the movie, and the actors really pull that off. There are some incredible moments for sideliners Turturro and Landou, as each of their characters invest some advice in young Mike. Damon even gets the chance to shine with his narration, which pulls some great one liners off, even if the narration seems uncomfortable with foul language at the beginning of the picture. If there’s a really weak spot in the actors it’s from Gretchen Mol, who doesn’t bring a lot of emotion to the girlfriend who gets so frustrated with Mike’s gambling she leaves him. When the two have conversations afterwards there isn’t much coming from Mol, and that’s a bit disappointing.
All of the kudos don’t belong to the actors though. Director John Dahl should be commended for making a smart film, but keeping it as flashy as the poker hands that appear throughout the flick. It’s got style and substance, and Dahl is responsible for that. Some of the style is also thanks to Christopher Young’s amazing score for the film, which captures both the feel of the dazzle of Vegas, as well as underground nightclubs.
Rounders is an excellent film that I’d unfortunately missed for many years. Thanks to this new release on DVD though, it’s a movie I’m quite fond of, and looking forward to watching again soon.
A lot of movies get a raw deal their first time on DVD, and Rounders is no different. Not only did it get a bare bones release the first time, but that release was over two years ago, so this Collector’s Edition is way overdue.
The focus on the DVD, from packaging to contents, is on the poker side of the film. The case looks like a deck of cards with Damon and Norton on the cover and most of the bonus material features world class poker players. While paying attention to these elements of the DVD, it becomes obvious that both the movie’s director, it’s players, and the professional players see poker as representative of life. As it’s pointed out in one of the interviews, you never know what the turn of a card will bring, both in the game and in life. That’s certainly true for the movie. Mike’s life is going well, then suddenly he’s dealt a bum hand and loses everything. He rebuilds his roll, only to be dealt another bad card when his friend returns. Cards and life are both very random, and you don’t know what the next turn will bring. It puts an interesting perspective on things.
As I said, the documentaries are more focused on poker then the movie. There is a short behind the scenes documentary that does focus on the movie, and when I say short I mean short - clocking in at just over five minutes, it just gets your appetite whetted when it’’s over. A second documentary takes you behind the scenes of the World Championship Poker Game in Vegas. Through interviews with Johnny Chan (who is featured heavily in Rounders), Chris “Jesus” Ferguson , Phil Helmuth, and Chris Moneymaker, insight is given into how the World Championship Game and poker in general seems to be regarded. There’s even a cool anecdote about how Matt Damon lost with a dealt pair of kings when he and Ed Norton were in the Championship Game.
Further insight into poker is given through some “Champion Poker Tips” by each of the previously mentioned poker players. These were probably the low point of the DVD for me, because there was no “Play All” option. Each tidbit is anywhere from ten seconds to a little over a minute. With four players giving six to ten pieces of advice, the menu surfing was a little more then I wanted. There’s some good advice in there though, even if it does contradict other pieces at times - different playing styles for different people. I just hope I remember some of that advice at my next weekly poker game.
To practice the skills you’ve been taught there’s a set top game of Texas Hold’em. It’s a cool little game, and is interesting enough to hold my attention for a few minutes. I can’t see playing it as a regular thing though, but I got my entertainment out of it.
There are two commentary tracks to accompany the film. One from director John Dahl, screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and Ed Norton joins in on the fun as well. It’s a pretty good commentary track, with interesting information for what would seemingly be a dry commentary movie. This is the perfect type of movie to bring the writers in on though, and let them talk about what inspired them through the writing process. The secondary commentary track is a fun little track with the previously mentioned poker players. It’s fun in that the players tell you what would and wouldn’t happen in the real world, what events in the movie they have and haven’t been through, and even take time to take friendly potshots at each other. The disadvantage of the track is there are long gaps where nobody talks, almost as if the players are wrapped up in the movie. Some of these gaps go as long as five minutes with no commentary, which gives it a feel of watching the movie and being interrupted by somebody’s conversation. Unfortunately this makes it a commentary that’s fun once for entertainment value, but probably not something to be listened to any more frequently then that.
This is a great package for a movie that hasn’t seen a new release in several years. I can’t recommend the movie highly enough, and if you find yourself captivated when poker tournaments show on the travel channel, or “Celebrity Poker Showdown” appears on Bravo, you’ll find the special features on the disc a lot of fun as well.