Rounders (1998) — The seedy underbelly of the poker circuit

“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.”

Justin’s rating: I fold.

Justin’s review: Poker is to some a game of chance, or a gambling man’s enterprise. According to Drew, who last week had his shirt literally taken from his back in a nasty game of draw-five, it’s quite possibly the most nudity-encouraging activity one can partake in outside of watching late-night Cinemax. But in the movie Rounders, poker is not a game — it is a job, an addiction and a calling.

Professional poker genius — a “rounder” — Mike (Matt Damon) finds himself on a bad run, both in the game and in life. Not only does he go bust in a high-stakes game with Russian mafia guy with Riddikulous Accent™ (John Malkovich), but his lapse in gambling judgment loses him his girlfriend (spunky Gretchen Mol) and gets him into trouble alongside a fellow rounder named Worm (Edward Norton), a guy who relies more on cheating than straight-up playing.

It’s a situation that sets the cards into motion — believe me when I tell you I wish I could stop making poker-related puns, but there’s a much more powerful force at work here than myself — as Mike needs to raise $15,000 in a short span… or his days are numbered. Numbered to zero, actually.

As a sports movie, Rounders has much more in common with Searching For Bobby Fischer than any grand team sports tournament. The movie doesn’t dive into the sleek Vegas poker atmosphere, but instead scrounges into the seedy underbelly (ask yourself: what is a “seedy underbelly” anyway?) of the NYC poker underground, where the actual mechanics of card playing come far distant to the ability to read and scam the people you’re playing. Our guide to this world is Mike’s inner narration, which occasionally educates us about the finer points of the game and the system surrounding it.

Now I know that a lot of movie critics treat narration in movies as if they stepped in something that recently came out of something’s colon. That’s always had an air of snobbery to it, at least in my opinion, because critics (not necessarily speaking for most moviegoers) always like to harp about movies “showing, not telling.” It’s a great moral high road, but if they were all that keen on just showing, they’d have to relinquish all dialogue — a lot of which is exposition, in a different fashion but the same spirit of narration — and just return to the silent film era. You know, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few critics hate color in movies too. Darn blues and yellows, taking our attention away from mind-numbing film critique!

For me, I usually love narration in film, as long as it’s done right and not overused. In the right hands, it can be a powerful tool to not only inform the audience, but to make them feel included. As if they’re behind the scenes, in the character’s head, granted special information that most people don’t have. Not to mention that narration can really put us in a mood to appreciate that we‘re watching a story, just in visual instead of printed form. Fight Club and The Shawshank Redemption are a couple of my personal favorite examples of narrative use.

Mike’s narration in Rounders is what takes a nice but mostly forgettable film and gives it an extra boost of watchability. Matt Damon’s always had a talent for playing characters who have a lot more going on upstairs than the characters around him, and getting a slice of that in his little mind-speeches about poker, the games and the people is quite appreciated. Plus, the movie knows when to not break into sudden narration when we’d expect — such as when Worm tries to silently force Mike to cheat during a game with state troopers — so there’s no danger of overuse here.

Rounders has had a following in its own little way, probably more for a lack of poker movies out there than being a true classic in its completed form. However, when you look at it as a small indie movie with a couple of highlights (not to mention a bevy of famous actors in small roles), it’s worth anteing up to the pot for its little charms.

Didja notice?

  • He likes to hide his money in interesting places
  • Ouch. He got slammed.
  • Fun ways to make friends in prison
  • I like piranha metaphors
  • Worm flipping the cards like boomerangs
  • Scamming cops isn’t always the way to go
  • KGB’s ridiculous accent
  • KGB’s tell
  • I don’t want to ever wonder at any great length why a guy might be given the nickname “Worm”

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