Who doesn’t like a nice hand of poker occasionally? Especially when you’re playing for not having your kneecaps smashed by a Russian mobster who listens to his Oreo cookies before shoving his chips out. By now you’ve probably guessed I’m talking about Rounders, one of the most criminally ignored taut little melodramas of recent times.
(1998. Colour. Script: David Levien and Brian Koppleman. Direction: John Dahl. Cinematography: Jean Yves Escoffier. Score: Christopher Young sounding like a jazzier Barry Adamson.)
Miramax basically dumped this small (US$12 million) flick on the market with fuck all promotion ‘cos they were getting jiggy at the time about hitting the big time with Shakespeare In Love and ‘cos none of Rounders’s cast were big draw cards back then.
But we're talking here about an utterly inimitable flick that's gonna be revived many times long after Paltrow, J. Fiennes, Affleck and co have gone to the great test screening in the sky. We're talking about a flick that features Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Martin Landau, Famke Jansson and John Malkovich, all delivering brillant performances as a bunch of hustlers, mobsters, fuckups and femme fatales playing poker for high stakes in low dives across New York.
Both the screenwriters used to be ‘rounders’, poker players who make the rounds of floating games and the plays, beats, jargon and dialogue just crackles with insider knowledge. In fact, apparently the US DVD includes a commentary track from four World Champion Poker players.
But you don’t have to be a pokerhead to enjoy this razorsharp, gritty and chip-chewing flick directed by John Dahl, who’s made some of the best contemporary modern film noir flicks around like The Last Seduction and Red Rock West.
He brilliantly captures a semi-covert world where Texas Hold ‘Em is played for money, love, power and ego by Russian gangsters in illegal gaming dens, yuppies in cigar bars, union officials in meeting halls, golf pros in country clubs, cops in hunting lodges, trust fund babies in Yale Association clubs, judges, DAs and law professors in City Hall and by suckers at Atlantic City.
The story is centred around Matt Damon as a failing law student and ambivalent rounder who starts off trying to build his stake for an entry fee to the World Poker Championship in Vegas, but blows it all and cashes in his chips to go straight. Then his old childhood friend and former hustling partner, Edward Norton (who gives what I think is his best performance ever - as a charming, brillant, sleazy fuckup) is released from prison and wants to start up the old team again and then everything goes right off the rails.
And even if they do manage to get back on track, waiting at the end of the line is Teddy KGB, a sinister and eccentric Russian mobster with a cookie fetish and the worst dress sense you’ve ever seen on screen, who relishes fucking people up across the poker table. No prizes for guessing which actor called John Malkovich plays Teddy.
Not only is the acting uniformly brilliantly even down to the extras with one line of dialogue, Rounders has a great look and feel as well. All the locations seem utterly believable as they range across the whole socio-economic spectrum of New York from blowjobs in manky strip club toilets to the polished brass and bullshit of yuppie hangouts. You can actually smell these places. And a note perfect soundtrack that captures the emotional highs and lows of living a life of nerve, chance, well-fingered Benjimans and pissed-off lovers.
And even though I’m not much of a poker player and a lot of the plays and jargon went right over my head, the big games in the flick themselves are incredibly suspenseful, and not always for the reasons you may think. One of the most scrotum-tightening lines during a game in Rounders is “Wow! That’s one big fucking elk’s head!” which has nothing to do with the actual fall of the cards. Yet.
Look boys and girls, GrogFlog’s never steered you wrong before (aside from that ill fated post about the South Korean edit of “The Sound of Music” with all the songs cut out, which Tony fortunately deleted before it emerged online). Trust me on this call. Honestly. You can't see any tells here can you? So take a punt and see Rounders. Dahl and co flopped a nut straight here. You don’t have to like cards to enjoy it. Just movies.
GrogFlog’s verdict: “If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.” Four aces out of five.
Coming soon: John Huston and Truman Capote get it on, James Coburn drops acid, Harvey Keitel behaves badly and Jennifer Tilly wants your body.