When Rounders was released in September of 1998, star Matt Damon was hot off his breakthrough role in the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. Miramax, the distributor of both films, did their level best to make Rounders look almost like a sequel to Hunting; the trailer's centerpiece scene finds brilliant card player Mike McDermott (Damon) blind-reading an entire poker table, a bit that echoed Will Hunting's dressing-down of a Harvard douchebag in the earlier picture. But Rounders was unable to repeat either that film's rhapsodic notices or stellar box office, and it sank rather quickly that fall. Come to find out, it was just the victim of lousy timing; within a couple of years, the explosion of recreational Texas Hold-'Em play (the picture's primary card game) made the film a belated hit on home video. (Fads are unforgiving to the slow pace of film production; by the time "poker movies" like Lucky You and The Grand hit, the fuss was over.)
Seen outside of that initial Damon rush, and the later Hold-'Em frenzy, Rounders holds up pretty well--it's not a great film like Hunting, but it is a very good time. It begins with a pitch-perfect ten-minute prologue, in which law student McDermott goes to the underground poker club of "Teddy KGB" (John Malkovich) with "three stacks of high society" (read: $30,000), his entire savings and bankroll. The plan is to win big, financing a trip to Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker; instead, he loses it all to KGB, a devastating gut-punch that puts him off the cards and back to square one. It's a terrific sequence, efficiently setting up the character, the stakes, and the game itself (which he explains, in voice-over).
Nine months pass. Mike is still steering clear of the cards, driving a truck for "grinder" Joey Knish (John Turturro) to pay his way through law school and his share of the bills for the apartment he shares with girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol), who stood by him when he lost it all. But then things are complicated by Mike's old buddy and poker partner "Worm" (Edward Nortion), who gets out of jail and immediately needs Mike's help working some games to pay back a long-running debt.
The screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman (who later wrote Soderbergh's Ocean's 13 and The Girlfriend Experience, among others) sets up a dynamic between the pair that is markedly similar to that of Charlie and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets: the perpetual fuck-up and the would-be do-gooder who is perpetually getting sucked into his orbit. "You're fixing to go down hard," Mike tells Worm, "and it almost seems like you want to." Damon's does his best (and mostly succeeds) to inject some flavor into his vanilla character, but he knows that Norton's got the show-off role; he's all oily, sleazeball charm, trying our patience as thoroughly as he does Damon's, absolutely infuriating but with a sideways gleam in his eye that makes him endearing.
Their script feels written from the inside--there's lingo, and lots of it, convincingly mouthed by the strong ensemble cast, and the duo have a good ear for the kind of street poetry rhythms found in David Mamet's best work ("But about the money, I gotta say this: I gotta say no"). The direction, by the great and underrated John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), is moody and atmospheric, the lighting and music drenched in noir, the smoke in the poker rooms thick enough to smell. And he draws the urgency out of the narrative, particularly Mike's desperate run, for several days with no sleep, bouncing from game to game in an attempt to rustle up $15K for Worm's "creditors." That sequence has the energy of a good heist movie; scenes like that are so thoroughly entertaining that we're willing to forgive the picture its minor flaws.
There are two major ones, though: first, the climax, while thrilling, hinges on tough guy Teddy sporting a "tell" that a Vegas tourist would spot in about a minute flat. And then there is the character of Jo, who is given no depth or dimension aside from being an unlikable nag, from her very first scene (aside from a flash in the prologue, asleep). As a result, their relationship doesn't have anywhere to go--it's DOA from the jump--and we don't share his momentary emotion when she leaves, because we've seen nothing redeemable or interesting in her. Had she been given an arc, a slow awareness that he was falling back into bad patterns rather than immediate suspicion and harassment, we might have felt a real struggle within him as he was pulled back to the tables. Instead, we wonder why it took him so long to lose the wet blanket. That's an easier beat to play, but nowhere near as interesting.
Watching Rounders the same evening as Good Will Hunting (also new on Blu), I was struck by the similarity in the look of the films, which both have a kind of golden glow that I'd always assumed was an in-my-head byproduct of the Damon connection. Come to find out, it shares that film's cinematographer, the late Jean-Yves Escoffier, and the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer of this disc is as impressive as Hunting's. It's a clean, crisp image, and though there is some occasional softness, the details and heavy shadows are nicely reproduced.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally strong, with dialogue clean, effects immersive, and the hi-hats of Christopher Young's jazzy score well-dispersed throughout the soundstage. Atmospheric scenes (casinos, card rooms, New York City scenes) use the surround channels subtly but effectively.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Lionsgate has brought over all of the bonus features from Miramax's 2004 DVD "Collector's Edition" (save for an interactive poker tutorial feature). First up, we have two Audio Commentaries: one with director John Dahl, writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and actor Edward Norton, the other with professional poker players Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Moneymaker, and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. Both are good, but not great; there is some interesting stuff in the tracks, but both are plagued by lengthy silences; they might've been better edited into one, constant track.
Next is a Behind the Scenes Special (5:19), which is a well-assembled if basic EPK-style affair with clips, interviews, and a smattering of on-set footage.
"Inside Professional Poker" (5:37) is a quick look at the world of pro cards (shot mostly at the World Series of Poker, where Damon and Norton competed), mixing interviews with the cast and crew with several professional players who talk (a bit, at least) about their conception of the game. A collection of "Champion Poker Tips" from Chan, Ferguson, Hellmuth, and Moneymaker close out the bonus section; they're good, though a "Play All" option is sorely missing (the tips are often just a few seconds long).
Rounders has some minor problems, but the energy of the narrative and the professionalism of the players elevates it above such secondary concerns. It is, above all, a relentlessly entertaining picture, snappy and fast-paced and a real pleasure to watch.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.