Matt Damon, Gretchen Mol, and Edward Norton in Rounders (1998)


(director: John Dahl; screenwriters: David Levien/Brian Koppelman; cinematographer: Jean-Yves Escoffier; editor: Scott Chestnut; cast: Matt Damon (Mike McDermott), Ed Norton (Worm), John Malkovich (Teddy KGB), Martin Landau (Abe Petrovsky), John Turturro (Joey Kinish), Gretchen Mol (Jo), Famke Janssen (Petra), Melina Kanakaredes (Barbara); Runtime: 121; Miramax Films; 1998)

“Too lightweight!”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rounders are card sharks who ply their trade in underground NYC dwellings. The narration by Matt Damon keeps telling us, “that the ones who win are not lucky but skillful. You play against the man, not the cards. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half-hour of the game, then you are the sucker.”

Matt is a law student, living with the attractive law student, Gretchen. She gets him to agree to give up cards after he has lost all his money in one big game. Norton is Worm, the creepy, disrespected card cheating childhood friend of Matt’s, who gets out of jail and immediately gets Matt back into cards and into the dangerous hands of the mobster card player known as, KGB (Malkovich). Matt takes on the debt Worm has with KGB and as a result leaves law school, gets beat up, returns to being a rounder, and sees his girl leave him for good.

The love story was flat and unconvincing. Dahl never gave this relationship any details but surface ones; he seemed to use it to get an attractive female into this male story any way he could. But the gambling theme played its hand out well. It was as if this film was a crash course for gamblers and, at the same time, a sports comeback story made for card players (it’s about time they had their turn).

Landau’s role as Matt’s law professor was subdued but well served in his capable hands. He was Matt’s voice of reason, as he tells Matt to follow his instincts, to become who he is. All the actors were well-cast: Matt plays the role with credibility; Malkovich is a captivating villain, compulsively eating Oreo cookies and dressed as an unstylish Russian thug with a mysterious sinister accent (it could have been a Russian accent); Norton couldn’t have been wormier than his Worm was. This was a pleasingly entertaining film, but no more; it was too lightweight in content to be anything else.