In the city of New York, Mike, a law student and grinder on the underground poker circuit dreams of running up his roll and taking a run at the World Series. Along the way he battles the demons faced by all poker players and struggles to balance his love life, studies and desire to play the highest stakes against the best players in the world.
To fully understand the greatness that is Rounders you first need to understand that poker is a part luck part skill game. The best players in the world consistently beat the game and make their living at the tables. It’s unlike other casino games. Even the best slots, roulette wheels and blackjack tables favour the house. In poker it’s you vs your opponent and in the long term if you’re better than them you’ll come out on top.
Matt Damon is Mike McDermott, a young aspiring poker pro, who wants to take a shot and run up his bankroll in order to join to big guns of the poker world in Las Vegas. Things don’t quite go to plan for Mike though when he decides to take his first high stakes shot in an underground game against Russian gangster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich).
In a heads up battle with Teddy, Mike loses his entire bankroll and promises his girlfriend Jo, played by Gretchen Mol, he’s through with poker and intends to focus his attention on his studies.
Mike works a delivery job and manages to stay away from the tables until his childhood friend, and fellow poker grinder, Worm (Edward Norton) is released from prison. Worm jumps straight back into the underground poker circuit in New York and ends up racking up thousands in debts at the table.
Agreeing to help Worm, Mike returns to the tables in a marathon effort to repay the money owed. The two friends leave the city and tour home games and card rooms in the Tri-state area looking for good spots and weak players to take advantage of. They’re running hot and can nearly repay the debt owed when, back to his old ways, Worm tries to cheat a game full of local police and the two get beaten up, thrown out and, yet again, lose it all.
Jo realises Mike is back to his old gambling ways and promptly leaves him. Worm skips town leaving Mike to repay his debts and, refusing to shy away, Mike decides to take on Teddy KGB in a winner takes all heads up match. Everything is on the line.
Rounders does a great job of highlighting both the highs and lows of life as a professional poker player. Whilst there is definitely a romantic notion attached the art of gambling for a living the film also manages to weave in the reality of the situation. It highlights how outsiders and even those closest to you can’t and won’t understand the skill element of the game but does a great job in teaching the audience that ultimately skill will prevail over luck.
Matt Damon gives an outstanding display as Mike McDermott. His performance transitions perfectly with the ‘state-of-play’ and even though Mike makes some very questionable choices at times in the film you find yourself backing him 100% and resenting those around him who don’t support and understand his dreams. Mike is easy to relate to and conveys the emotional and mental struggles of a professional poker player better than any other actor in any other gambling film. It’s this that makes rounders so special.
Edward Norton, Worm, is also first class. He manages to capture the personality of a risk taker, petty criminal but down right likeable guy with ease. At times Worm is a pathetic case and at others he’s on top of the world. Norton captures and reflects this rollercoaster of personality bringing subtle nuances to the role that really build the character and bolster the overall impact of the story.
Ultimately Rounders is without a doubt a masterpiece. The highs are oh so high and the lows are oh so low which is perfect given the films subject matter. The film was released in 1998 during the poker boom, that boom has now faded, but Rounders keeps the dream alive and is a film for the ages.
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