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Rounders

Director: John Dahl
Cast: Natt Damon, Ed Norton

(US DVD: 23 Aug 2011)

Movies and poker have one thing in common: The point is to show, not tell. Yet when Rounders, a drama set in the world of underground—i.e., non-casino—poker games was released theatrically in 1998, its gambling-savvy screenwriters, David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and ever-underrated helmer John Dahl (now director of choice for smart cable shows like Dexter,  True Blood,  and Justified,) felt compelled to do a little too much gabbing at the table.


In its original appeal to people who didn’t get bleary-eyed watching pros in cowboy hats and shiny suits on late-night cable sports channels, a decision was made to have Matt Damon, who plays the law school student addicted to risk in Rounders, to add expository narration. (“Now this game is called Texas Hold ‘Em, silly civilian, and here’s how it works.”) Narration is not always the bugaboo that screenwriting teachers warn students against, To Kill a Mockingbird, being Exhibit A. But when employed as it is here, to explain everything weekenders and non-rounders don’t quite grasp, it tends to dumb a movie down.


Rounders, didn’t really need that: It already had John Malkovich, as Teddy KGB, a nutty Russian mobster with his very own rounder room, an Oreo cookie jones, and an accent worse than Boris Badenov’s. It also casts (adrift) Gretchen Mol as the goody-two-shoes girlfriend who leaves Damon’s Mike McDerrmot when he returns to Roundering. Good riddance to her.


Thirteen years after its original release, poker is long out of the damp basements: Cool Dudes like Chris Moneymaker (could he have invented a better name?) have turned high-stakes poker tourneys into something like the new NASCAR, another dangerous game played sitting while down and wearing sunglasses, and best-watched while drinking beer. Moneymaker, along with Cool Chick Vanessa Rousseau, say they were inspired to learn the game by watching Rounders, and though the film had a short-lived run on the box-office, it’s collected many markers on home video, and is now in its fourth DVD release, on discount BluRay. If you want to know how long your pre-BluRay player will be sustainable, consider this: You can pick this up for less than $9.


To be honest, BluRay doesn’t do much for Rounders, though it does enhance its murky midnight milieu. But the film doesn’t really need much extra help. Levien and Koppelman’s smart script—which you can bet was even smarter about five drafts before the shooting version—does a good job of switching up and slightly subverting the formula in which a good guy like Mike McD is seduced by his bad habits. Not only does Mike let the goody-girl walk and put law school on hold to help out jammed-up old pal Worm (Ed Norton at his slumming slouchiest), in leg-breaker debt to Teddy KGB, the writers take the movie to its inevitable conclusion—the big showdown with Teddie KGB—and then somehow convinced producer Havey Weinstein to let them turn the tables over one more time.


Not to spoil anything if you’ve never seen it, but let’s just say the world is always better off without another lawyer.


The new version carries over the same extras from the 2-DVD special edition, including a full-length commentary in which real players dissect the film, which many devotees prefer to the actual soundtrack. Actually, if you’ve somehow avoided Rounders, on misplaced principle, you may not want to watch it with vets; they tend to throw out lines the way the boys in Boiler Room quote-along with Wall Street.  (Teddy KGB: “It hurts, doesn’t it? Your hopes dashed. Your dreams down the toilet. And your fate, it’s sitting right beside you.”)


They also tend to spend a couple of hours afterwards arguing over what cards Teddy KGB was holding in the penultimate scene. The writers swear they’ll never tell, but there’s apparently a sequel in the works. According to which poker website you believe, it will be either a direct-to-DVD with B-listers replacing the stars (didn’t they already make that one, with Burt Reynolds and call it Deal ?); a Levien-Koppelman project starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an on-line poker junkie; or a real sequel reuniting most of the old gang.


Probably best to listen to Mike McD: “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle. But you can’t win much, either.”

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Terry Lawson was a film critic for 30 years, lastly at the Detroit Free Press, where he also contributed music and book reviews, and a weekly DVD column. He has won numerous awards for his journalism and criticism, been nominated multiple times for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, and was twice a runner-up. He has taught Screenwriting at the University of Michigan for more than a decade, and lives with his wife Kate and two feuding cats, in Bloomfield Hillls, Michigan.


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