You know what? Matt Damon’s starting to grow on me. When Francis Ford Coppola’s “The RainMaker” came out, Damon was so over-hyped and drooled over that I hated him right away and avoided the film altogether. I also stood clear of “Good Will Hunting” when it came out, even though all of Hollywood was praising it. In fact, the first time I really saw Damon in action was in the third act of “Saving Private Ryan”, and that’s when I realized that he was actually not that bad an actor. I then rented “Good Will Hunting” and I enjoyed the film a lot, so when “Rounders” came out, I went right ahead. Once again, Damon proves that he’s more than a pretty face. I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan yet, but I’m to the point where his name on a marquee grabs my attention.
Damon stars as a poker ace who’s earns money for law school playing in underground games. That doesn’t really please his girlfriend (the cute but plain Gretchen Mol), especially when he loses all their economies on a single bet. So he quits the “life” and gets a dayjob… That’s until his buddy Worm is released from prison, and before long, the pair is back around high-stakes tables. Worm wants to pay off his debts, and he needs Damon’s help to back him, but eventually, everything goes apeshit and both now have it up the ass. And has Damon seems to be losing everything he’s got, there’s only one thing left for him to do: gamble whatever’s left!
This ain’t a great story, but that’s not the film’s point. Director John Dahl is mostly trying to use poker as a metaphor for life. Damon’s character’s whole existence revolves around the game, and as he says it, it ain’t about luck. His talent ain’t just that he can count cards and maintain a noncommittal face: he’s so aware of human nature that he can guess what the other players are holding just by observing their behavior. Dahl takes us through the film with a “GoodFellas”-type voice-over from Damon, who deconstructs and analyses the game of poker for us. Dahl is a very talented filmmaker, but he there’s something missing in his work. There are outstanding moments in “Rounders”, but it’s not constantly exciting like, say, “Casino”. What’s for sure is that the cast is very well directed.
Besides Damon’s, there are many other great performances. Edward Norton’s very fun as the slick and sleazy Worm. It’s amazing how similar Norton’s acting can be to Steve Buscemi’s by moments. There’s also John Turturro as another rounder (the term for a professional card player). He’s more low-key than usual, but his acting is still right on. Martin Landau can also be seen in a small role. The most memorable turn is from John Malkovich, with his cartoonish but always exciting portrayal of an arrogant Russian poker whiz. Too bad the film doesn’t always have as much energy as that brilliant actor. It’s still a smart and interesting picture.