Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hey, I Finally Saw…ROUNDERS


Now, when I’ve added to this feature in the past it was usually because I caught up with a classic, like the original TRUE GRIT or ERASERHEAD. But this time out, I’m just catching up with a movie that I’d been meaning to see since it came out fifteen years ago, I just never got around to it.


So now, mainly because I noticed that it’s just about to expire on Netflix Instant, I finally watched John Dahl’s 1998 poker-driven crime drama ROUNDERS.

But hold on, maybe it’s more than just a movie I missed - the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias wrote an entry for it in their New Cult Canon series back in 2008.

Tobias argues convincingly that ROUNDERS is an extremely influential film that “lit the fuse on a multi-billion-dollar industry.” He points to the plethora of online poker sites that have endless usernames and/or avatars referencing the film as proof of its huge popularity among players.

For my first time watching it though, it felt less like an iconic celebration of the underworld of high-stakes gambling, and more like a slightly better than average late ‘90s crime drama that effectively maximizes on the then budding stardom of Matt Damon and Edward Norton. Both were fresh faced 20-somethings at the time, who had both gotten acclaim and in the case of Damon an Academy Award (shared with Ben Affleck for the GOOD WILL HUNTING screenplay).

In ROUNDERS, which is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a player who knows all the angles and earns his living at the poker table,” there’s a familiar dynamic at work as Damon is, in a role similar to his working class but brilliant minded character in GOOD WILL HUNTING, the good guy trying to go straight, and Norton is the bad influence who wants Damon to get back in the game.

Damon, whose voice-over narration is overly prominent, has good reasons for turning his back on the lifestyle – he lost his entire life savings of $30,000 to a ridiculously accented Russian gangster played by a very hammy John Malkovich, and he promised he wouldn’t go near a card game again to his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), who he is now in law school with.

Still, you know that he won’t be able to resist the lure of the game. Otherwise they’d be no movie, right? The basic premise boils down to the slimy Norton, who is actually nicknamed “Worm,” being heavily in debt, and his old partner Damon dusting off his mad poker skills to help his friend. This makes for some great gaming scenes, particularly one with the duo trying to hoodwink a room full of hard ass New Jersey State Troopers.


The second hour of ROUNDERS which begins with the nagging Mol leaving Damon to his gambling devices, is consumed by these tense gaming scenarios yet despite its predictable plotting, it still pulled me in.

I wasn’t interested as much in Damon’s predicament of choosing the proper father figure - Martin Landau as a muddled but wise professor and John Turturro as a somewhat beat down old-time rounder have hazy scenes in which they somewhat compete for the part, I think - than I was into the bad friend who manipulates his good friend basics this film nails.

Fanke Janssen is on the sidelines as a possible new love interest for Damon, but the movie doesn't seem too interested in that. The poker-powered bromance is what gets the spotlight.

In retrospect, the film foreshadows the relationship between Norton and Brad Pitt in FIGHT CLUB, which would be on Norton’s roster after his turn in AMERICAN HISTORY X (the era was busy for the actor). But if you’ve seen FIGHT CLUB you know what that relationship turned out to be.

ROUNDERS’ had a palpable impact on waves of impressionable poker players, many of who are no longer lulling about casinos or sleazy backrooms, but now playing high or low stake games comfortably at home in thousands of rooms online. For all you cyber-gamers out there, here are some of the better rooms available if you want to try your hand at some virtual Texas Hold’em, so you can sample the game yourself that provides the bookend scenes in which Damon goes up against Malkovich.

It may overly glorify the rush that makes a talented player like Damon’s character unable to quit the game, but it captures that pure excitement (Damon even regrettably tells Mol that he felt alive for the first time in 9 months when he sat back down at the table) so well that ROUNDERS may be the ultimate double edged sword of gambling movies.

ROUNDERS, which I’m glad I finally saw, is available for one more day on Netflix Instant (it expires at the end of February 1st).

More later…

1 comment:

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