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Review: 'Rounders' has nothing up its sleeve

Web posted on: Monday, September 14, 1998 1:08:57 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- There are actors and there are movie stars, and the new "life is like poker" film, "Rounders," is crawling with both species of performers. Don't misinterpret what I'm saying here; actors are not inherently more talented than movie stars are, they're just more likely to find their own identities as human beings totally submerged in the role they're playing.

Movie stars, on the other hand, are usually far better-looking than actors, and play pretty much the same character every time out of the gate. That's how the movies have always worked, and it's never gonna change. Not while people continue to carry their libidos into the theater with them, anyway.

Theatrical preview for "Rounders"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Old School Games"

Video: 2Mb QuickTime movie

That said, I think Matt Damon is a first-rate new movie star. He delivers yet another high-wattage performance in "Rounders," which (following his successes in "Good Will Hunting," "The Rainmaker," and "Saving Private Ryan") has him batting a thousand, by my count. Damon plays Mike McDermott, a likable if less than committed New York law student who used to be a high-stakes poker player.

He's now put all that card-counting behind him, though, and is trying to live the straight life in order to prove his commitment to his gorgeous girlfriend (Gretchen Mol, a stone-cold movie star who's given absolutely nothing to do).

Damon playing movie-star cards right

Director John Dahl immediately sells you on the idea that you're watching Mike's story, but you can never completely shake the fact that you're really looking at Matt Damon -- he of Minnie Driver and the Oscar and the teeth and the gee-whiz interviews. And that's just fine with me. I don't think it's really fair to start comparing relatively inexperienced performers to Hollywood's most calculating peacocks.

However, if you're dealing in this kind of big-bucks charisma, it's probably productive to suggest that Damon is a more believably human version of Tom Cruise.

I don't hear a cash register go "ca-chiiinnggg" every time Damon breaks into a dazzling grin the way I do when I watch Tommy Boy, and you never catch him looking too proud of himself just because he's the focus of our attentions. Acting may be an endless series of small calculations, but Damon never seems to be caught up in the math. You feel like he gets an honest kick out of being allowed to climb in front of the camera and pretend for us, and I really do appreciate that.

'Rounders' cast has high hopes for movie's success

Script dwells on cards

Too bad, then, that the "Rounders" script is pretty shabby going. Well, not shabby, really, just simplistic. Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman have by no means embarrassed themselves, but it's apparent that they got caught up in the intricacies of professional card playing during their research, then neglected to write much of a story around the details. After Mike's situation is established, we're introduced to his best friend, Worm (Edward Norton, actor), and from there on out you've basically seen it all before.

Worm is Mike's former partner in card cheating, a selfish hustler with absolutely no scruples ... even when it comes to drawing Mike into extremely dangerous situations. Worm's just been released from prison, but isn't remotely interested in cleaning up his act the way his buddy has. It's not long before he's in deep again with a couple of loan sharks, including a card-playing Russian mob member named Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, an extremely poor actor this time out).

The remainder of the movie is "Mean Streets" redux, with Damon (the struggling saint) wrestling to keep Norton (the reckless sinner) from the clutches of people who want to either separate him from the money he owes them or to separate his shoulders from their sockets. No matter how hard Mike tries, he can't even the score for Worm, so he eventually has to start playing cards again out of desperation. Yes, his girlfriend leaves him for it. Yes, Worm never learns his lesson. Yes, they take a severe beating. Yes, yes, yes.

Supporting characters dealt a weak hand

You can see pretty much everything in the movie coming about 45 minutes before it actually gets there. There are also several supporting characters who get completely shortchanged after a couple of rather interesting introductory moments. Martin Landau (actor) plays a professor who takes an interest in Mike's skills as a card player, but realizes too late that he's not much of a law student. The father/son relationship between the two characters is surprisingly warm, but disappears from the storyline just when you start to get interested.

Landau isn't around for long, but he's got a windfall of scenes compared to Famke Janssen -- who may very well end up being both an actress and a movie star. I think she's a real talent -- as well as a great-looking woman with super-duper legs who shows up a couple of times and doesn't accomplish one damn thing plot-wise. She tongue-kisses Damon at one point, then gets shoved away like lunchroom meatloaf. There had to have been scenes with both Janssen and Mol that were left on the cutting room floor, and the stuff that's there just points up the glaring lack of follow-through.

It would have been far more productive if Dahl had found it in his heart to take the clippers to Malkovich's performance. Malkovich is one of those guys who can stun you with his complex work in one movie, then leave you shaking your head in awe at his silly-ass shenanigans in the next one. His Teddy KGB is Russian in much the same way that Walt Disney's version of Geppetto is Italian.

Malkovich strains so hard to deliver dialogue in imprecisely broken English, it's a wonder they didn't have to ice his tongue down after every scene. Plus, he's a got a goofy bit of business (which was probably scripted) where he pulls apart and eats Oreo cookies during particularly intense card games. Teddy should get together with Cruise's Yoo-hoo drinking lawyer in "A Few Good Men" and compare cheap scene-stealing notes.

"Rounders" contains violence, bad language, and some drug use. The card-playing scenes (guided by Damon's "how to" voiceover) are often fascinating, but the movie as a whole plays like the same 20-minute sequence repeated six times. Watch closely for the gray-haired guy with the loud shirt at the Atlantic City card table; it's West Palm Beach poker legend Jake Swartout. Rated R. 114 minutes.

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