Although I'm not a card player myself, unless you count Magic: The Gathering (which actually has a lot in common with poker when it comes to bluffing and spotting "tells"), I've developed quite a fondness for films about poker players. There's something about the battle of wits and nerve inherent in the game, along with the dramatic pressure of money being on the line, that makes high-stakes poker a very nice engine at the center of the plot. With that in mind, Rounders is a can't-miss movie.
Rounders is a classic poker film, focusing on on a young, talented, and rather cocky player named Mike (Matt Damon) who dreams of building a stake and heading to Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker. In one instant, though, it all goes sour, and Mike is left with nothing. He tries to take up a new life, working himself through law school with regular jobs instead of poker playing, but when his high-school buddy "Worm" (Edward Norton) gets out of jail, Mike finds that he hasn't been able to completely sever his ties to the world of poker playing... and that the stakes just keep getting higher.
It takes more than just some slick card-playing scenes to make a great movie, and that's where Rounders shines. Fundamentally, the film is a character piece: the heart of the film is Mike's conflicted relationship with playing cards, and how he deals with the pressures of winning and losing. His relationship with his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) is a relatively small part of the film in terms of screen time, but it's actually essential to the story, as we see Mike being forced to come to terms with the choices he must make, and the consequences of those choices.
One of the things that makes Rounders so engrossing is that it keeps everything very real. For one thing, Mike's circumstances as a struggling law student mean that even relatively small amounts of money are significant. While in other films the pot is so rich as to take it out of our frame of reference (if I can't imagine having a million dollars in cash, I can't imagine losing it), here we can appreciate what it means to Mike to lose the rent money, the tuition money; we can feel his pain and understand what it means to his life. On another level, the relationship between Mike and Worm is spot-on and completely believable, which means that the story developments that are based on that relationship also ring true.
On the acting front, Rounders is yet another example of why I'm so impressed with Edward Norton as an actor. Matt Damon does an excellent job, that's for sure, but he's really playing a variant of the same character that we see in most of his other films. Norton, on the other hand, truly vanishes into his character, creating a new person in each role. Worm is utterly believable, with Norton deftly bringing out the dissonant notes in his relationship with Mike as the film proceeds. We see the bond between the two characters, and we also see how Mike has grown while Worm remains bound by his own insecurities and, fundamentally, his over-riding selfishness. While I'm mentioning strong acting performances in Rounders, it's worth noting that the film's secondary actors are a fine bunch as well. John Turturro showcases his amazing versatility as an actor in another excellent performance, and the film's "big names" contribute nicely to the film as well. Martin Landau does a solid turn as Mike's sympathetic law professor, and while I wouldn't have immediately thought of John Malkovich for the role of a Russian gangster, he makes the performance believable and memorable.
In many ways, Rounders is a coming-of-age story, with its protagonist forced to confront the questions of what he really wants from his life, who his friends really are, and what he's willing to do to achieve his goals. The story has a great deal of depth to it: it isn't one that relies on abrupt plot reversals to keep the viewer interested, and it doesn't need them, either... but while it doesn't have any flashy twists to it, neither is it predictable. While I won't spoil the film by giving any details, there are several points during the movie where events go in a different direction than what I'd been expecting. The ending is very well handled and very satisfying, providing a wrap-up that's somewhat unexpected but, at the same time, that feels completely "right" because of the way the story has developed.
Rounders appears in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that offers a reasonably good, but not outstanding, image. The print looks like it's in good shape, without any print flaws that I could see, and with minimal noise. The problem with the image is that the contrast is consistently too heavy: any dark areas of the image that are very dark are shown as completely black. For instance, the black coat that Matt Damon wears always looks completely flat black, with no detail or shading, even in scenes that are lit reasonably brightly. In a few instances, shadowy areas take on a slightly brownish tint as well. Overall, however, colors look perfectly normal, with nice depth and texture. All in all, Rounders looks respectable (thus earning its three and a half stars for video) even if the contrast is problematic.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack for Rounders handles the mainly dialogue-focused film reasonably well. While there's not much by way of surround effects, the 5.1 mix does have a pleasing depth to it, making it sound better than it likely would have with a 2.0 surround track. I did notice on a few occasions that the dialogue sounded a little bit muffled, though not enough to interfere with understanding it at all. Considering the overall clean feel to the track, it's a respectable soundtrack.
A dubbed French Dolby 2.0 track is also included, along with Spanish subtitles.
There's a reasonable selection of special features here, some of which have more merit than others. Two commentary tracks are provided for the film: the first is with professional poker players Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Moneymaker, and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, and the second is with director John Dahl, writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and actor Edward Norton. The poker-player commentary is nice in theory, but in practice it's really a colossal waste of time, as the participants seem uncomfortable with the commentary and don't have much to say. They do venture some thoughts on the actual card-playing scenes, but they're far from earth-shattering. The second commentary is far better, with the group providing a lively and interesting discussion of the making of the film.
"Heads Up Texas Hold 'Em" is an interactive poker tutorial, leading viewers through the basics of the game and leading up to an actual "game." It's actually decently done, and viewers who don't know anything about poker will probably find it fun to play with.
The "Behind-the-Scenes Special" is a general promotional featurette, covering the basics about the ideas behind the film and the making of the film. For a promo-style piece, it's reasonably well done, with relatively few clips from the film puffing it up. There are interviews with the major cast members, though there's nothing really earth-shattering. A second featurette called "Professional Poker" takes a look at the real-life inspiration for the story, and has interviews with top professional poker players discussing how poker is more a game of skill than chance.
Next, we get "Champion Poker Tips," which is composed of very short video clips from Johnny Chan, Chris Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, and Chris Moneymaker offering insights into how to play poker successfully. Lastly, in a "Sneak Peeks" section we get trailers for Jersey Girl and The Ladykillers.
This was the second time that I'd seen Rounders, and I liked it even more on the repeat viewing than on the initial one. It's a very nicely done film, telling a fundamentally character-based story that's made all the more effective by solid performances from the principal actors, Matt Damon and Edward Norton. You'll probably appreciate the nuances more if you know something about poker, but no matter what, Rounders is an excellent film that is amply deserving of a space in your collection. Highly recommended.