This weekend, the mood was poker nostalgia for me and my movie buddies, and we had to pick a poker movie we all liked. We all play poker and some of us are pretty good at it; and the movie choices with poker as its theme or story-line aren’t too many to begin with anyway. There were a hell of a lot of arguments back and forth; some erstwhile contenders like even Mel Gibson’s Maverick or Timberlake’s Runner Runner were in contention, but we sort of settled unanimously on re-visiting John Dahl’s Rounders. So, basically once again we weekend couch potatoes settled down with our wine and shine to check out Matt Damon’s most-watched (by the poker world, of course) caper.
The year 1998 was a little before Matt Damon reinvented himself as Jason Bourne, who was basically a grimmer and meaner Bond albeit without much by way of a past memory. This was the year he acted, as Mike McDermott, in Rounders. Early in the movie, Mike chats with his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) about his poker-playing and she expresses incredulity that Mike associates with someone called ‘Worm’ (Edward Norton). That exchange underlines the essence of the movie: the two lives that Mike McDermott lives. One is as Mike the law student, and the other is the exciting and uncertain life of a “rounder” who mingles with sleazy card-sharps and shady underworld figures.
The makers have done some serious research and are able to give the viewers a peek into New York’s underground high stakes poker world. Not that we’d be able to verify, but it looks and feels authentic all the same. Technical brilliance is where most of the good qualities of the movie cease to exist. For one, the drama is engaging only in snatches, and flat as a soda left out too long. And that’s just the beginning.
Matt Damon fails to look convincing as the shrewd poker player who’s confused about what he really wants (did we mention he’s also a law student?). That’s especially so when he’s depicted making hardened card-sharps part with their ill-gotten money. By the way, that is only until he gets cleaned out by bigger fish, a Russian gangster who goes by the name of KGB (lol, John Malkovich). That sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The remaining film can simply be summed up thus: Mike quits poker on Jo’s say-so, but then old buddy ‘Worm’ comes back from prison and Mike has to help him pay off a long-standing debt. The two go on a poker-spree to achieve just that by hook or by crook.
Sounds familiar? It did to me. Rounders is, at its core, a heist movie. It’s the age-old formula of a con going on the straight, only to come back for one last bank/ heist job in order to, take your pick: settle an old score, pay off a debt, save a friend’s life, or all three. Rounders just modifies that formula to fit the context of poker. In the end, the good guy wins back his honour and his money, and all is well with the world. No surprises there: it’s Hollywood, and winning in the end is kind of part of the job description for the hero.
So far, not so bad; what really proves to be the movie’s undoing is that it tries to be too many things. It’s a sports film, but the protagonist plays the illegal version of it. It’s almost a heist film, but for the fact that poker is a sport. And it finishes off by being a coming-of-age tale, as Mike decides to stop being so confused. Instead of messing around with the illegal (and dangerous) variety of poker, he takes his winnings from the climactic finale game and heads to Vegas to be a legit player. I love Mat Damon, the poker player in real life too, but his reel life version is dramatized such that it leaves much to be desired. Edward Norton is good as Worm, makes you hate him at times and kick his butt whenever he appears on the screen. A few of the characters are wasted, their characters not etched as cleanly as they could have been. Director John Dahl needs to wake up in some scenes, but overall has done a satisfactory job.
Rounders, the movie became a sort of cult stuff – specifically among the “poker movies” recommended for poker buffs as the game moved on to celeb proportions post 2002 after the advent of the online version of it; yet, I personally prefer Damian Neiman’s “Shade” or even Curtis Hanson’s “Lucky You”. All in all, it is a movie strictly for poker enthusiasts. Anybody else will just as likely miss out on the technical guile and the intricacies of the game that the movie captures pretty well.