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'Rounders' Plays The Same Old Hands.

By Stacey Richter

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  FIVE MINUTES INTO Rounders I already had the entire plot figured out. This is because I've seen Rocky: Guy loses big, guy works hard, guy learns about life, guy wins big. Sure, a lot of movie plots are predictable, but few of them, especially those that fall into the sort-of thriller genre, are as thoroughly predictable as this one. Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, director John Dahl's previous movies, certainly showed more originality and spunk. Rounders, by contrast, is calculating and flat. I don't know anything about first-time screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppleman, but I can sure tell they've watched a lot of movies. Rounders is about playing poker and friendship and love, but rather than actually being about these subjects, it's as though the screenwriters sat around in a room for a couple of years watching movies about them.

It's annoying, to say the least. None of the main characters seem especially vivid, few of their actions are at all surprising, and it's all vaguely familiar. "Rounders," by the way, are guys who play poker for a living, an unsavory and poorly groomed bunch of men who would just as soon sock you as toss a chip at you. Except for Mike McDermott (the apple-cheeked Matt Damon). Mike is a nice boy who goes to law school and always wears a pea coat like he's auditioning to be in the J. Crew catalogue. But beneath this veneer of respectability crouches one hell of a poker player, a sort of poker playing genius. You know, kind of like the math genius Damon played in Good Will Hunting.

Mike takes a fall early on though, losing his entire bankroll to a scruffy Russian in a soiled sweat suit known as KGB (John Malkovitch). So he swears off his beloved game entirely, much to the delight of his uptight, pixie-faced girlfriend (Famke Janssen), who hates his poker playing vehemently, even though it's the only interesting thing about Mike. And even though all she ever does is fix her hair and whine at him for playing cards, Mike is determined to please her, and to give up poker, and just be a regular guy in a pea coat, etc.

But then Mike's buddy Worm (Edward Norton II) gets out of jail. Norton is the only person in Rounders who seems to be having any fun with his role, and his portrayal of the shifty, self-destructive Worm definitely spices things up. It's unfortunate that his character, as written by Levien and Koppleman, is basically a reprise of the self-destructive, shifty Johnny Boy played by Robert DeNiro in Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets. The whole middle portion of Rounders, as a matter of fact, is dedicated to reprising Mean Streets--a good movie, but I'm starting to wish it never existed so that all the bad imitations of it wouldn't exist, either. In Mean Streets there are two friends, one bad and one good. They're old buddies who love each other, yet the bad boy seems unable to stop getting into trouble, and the good boy seems unable to stop trying to save him. In Rounders, Worm is able to lie, trick, cheat and steal money from Mike, and then to get him beaten to a pulp. Mike keeps saying, in his annoying voice-overs, "I just had to give him one more chance."

Between all this co-dependent, sappy relationship dross, there are scenes of card playing. These are by far the most bearable thing about the movie. Dahl manages to make a game wherein the players struggle to reveal no emotion look exciting. The supporting retinue of habitual poker players are perfectly cast--dissipated and fat, with too much jewelry and ugly shirts and the kind of facial hair you rarely see on the big screen. There's a great scene where Mike and Worm go to Atlantic City and fleece a revolving assortment of hapless vacationers, all poorly dressed and utterly lacking in glamour.

It's especially fun to watch Worm during the card-playing scenes. He's wound-up and appropriately doomed, but Norton plays the character with a surprising lightness and humor. Norton certainly deserves his prominent billing beside Damon, who's terrible in his role. He's supposed to be a great poker player, but with his gee-shucks/cat-who-swallowed-the-canary facial tics, it's entirely apparent when he's bluffing, or not bluffing.

At least I learned one original fact from watching this movie: Good poker players need to be good actors, and you can't fake it by casting a bad actor as a good poker player.

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