Rounders Movie Poster
|Directed by||John Dahl|
|Written by||David Levien
with John Malkovich
and Martin Landau
|Music by||Christopher Young|
|Editing by||Scott Chestnut|
|Distributed by||Miramax Films|
|Release date(s)||September 11, 1998|
|Running time||121 minutes|
Rounders is a 1998 film about the underground world of high-stakes poker. Directed by John Dahl and starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, the movie follows two friends who need to quickly earn enough cash playing poker to pay off a huge debt. The term "rounder" refers to a person whose sole means of earning a living is by playing cards.
The movie opened to mixed reviews and made only a modest amount of money. However, with the growing popularity of Texas hold 'em and other poker games, Rounders has become a cult hit.
Based in New York City, Poker player Mike McDermott [Damon] loses his entire bankroll of $30,000 in a hand of Texas hold'em against Teddy "KGB," a Russian Mobster, who runs an illegal underground poker room. Mike then decides to concentrate on his law school studies while promising his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo not to gamble. Mentor and fellow rounder Knish offers a part-time job driving a delivery truck to make ends meet.
Time passes, and Mike is true to his promise. He does not play cards, and assumedly focuses on school.
The movies main plot is introduced when Mike's childhood friend Worm [Norton] is released from prison. Worm is also a card player, who owes an outstanding debt accumulated before his incarceration. It is discovered then that Grama, a former associate of Worm's in a credit card printing operation, had purchased all of Worm's debt. With interest, the total debt came to $25,000.
Due to Worm's re-entrance into his life, Mike is soon rounding again, causing decreasing productivity in law school and turmoil amongst himself and girlfriend Jo.
When Worm is given a five day deadline to pay off the remaining $15,000 of debt, Mike joins him in a furious race to pay Grama. The two come close to making the $15,000 needed, yet end up losing their entire bankroll when they are caught cheating at a poker game, despite Mike's insistence on playing the game straight. After this incident, Worm decides to leave the City, and advises Mike to do the same. This is when he reveals to Mike that Grama is in fact backed by KGB, the very same Russian Mobster who had cleaned Mike out of his $30,000 bankroll months before.
Mike refuses to flee, and instead, with the help of a $10,000 loan from his law school judge Petrovsky, sits down to play KGB heads-up in a No-Limit, Texas Hold'em game. In a race against time to pay off Worm's debt, and to prove himself as a poker player, Mike puts his life on the line against the man who had forced him out of the game.
Mike plays KGB, and beats him, taking $10,000 from him. This money, combined with the $10,000 from Petrovsky, gives him the $15,000 needed to pay off worms debt, and another $5,000 to go towards paying back Petrovsky. However, Mike is goaded back to the table when KGB mentions that he is paying off Mike with his own money, the $30,000 that Mike had lost to him before.
Mike starts off slow and KGB gets the chip lead, but the edge switches when Mike is able to spot KGB's tell. Instead of taking advantage of it, he shows KGB his folded hand, which contains top-two pair. Mike knew KGB had a straight, and by showing him what normally would be a monster hand, Mike successfully rattles KGB.
The game culminates when Mike flops a ten high inside straight. Mike plays it off as if he is only chasing the straight, and is able to get KGB to move all in.
After the game, Mike pays off Worms debt and his loan to Petrovsky, and "starts where he left off," with about $30,000. The movie ends with Mike officially dropping out of law school, and going to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker Main Event.
Rounders began filming in December 1997 and was set mostly in New York, with the notable exceptions being that the law school scenes were filmed at Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey and the State Trooper poker game and parking lot scenes which were taped at B.P.O Elks Lodge on Spruce Avenue in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey.
Rounders was released on September 11, 1998 in 2,176 theaters and grossed $8.5 million during its opening weekend. It went on to make $22.9 million domestically.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote: "Rounders sometimes has a noir look but it never has a noir feel, because it's not about losers (or at least it doesn't admit it is). It's essentially a sports picture, in which the talented hero wins, loses, faces disaster, and then is paired off one last time against the champ". In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: "Though John Dahl's Rounders finally adds up to less than meets the eye, what does meet the eye (and ear) is mischievously entertaining". USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The card playing is well-staged, and even those who don't know a Texas hold-'em ("the Cadillac of poker") from a Texas hoedown will get a vicarious charge out of the action". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Norton, cast in what might have once been the Sean Penn role (hideous shirts, screw-you attitude), gives Worm a shifty, amphetamine soul and a pleasing alacrity ... Norton's performance never really goes anywhere, but that's okay, since the story is just an excuse to lead the characters from one poker table to the next".
Peter Travers, in his review for Rolling Stone said of John Malkovich's performance: "Of course, no one could guess the extent to which Malkovich is now capable of chewing scenery. He surpasses even his eyeballrolling as Cyrus the Virus in Con Air. Munching Oreo cookies, splashing the pot with chips (a poker no-no) and speaking with a Russian accent that defies deciphering ("Ho-kay, Meester sum of a beech"), Malkovich soars so far over the top, he's passing Pluto". In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle said of Damon's performance: "Mike should supply the drive the film otherwise lacks, and Damon doesn't. We might believe he can play cards, but we don't believe he needs to do it, in the way, say, that the 12-year-old Mozart needed to write symphonies. He's not consumed with genius. He's a nice guy with a skill". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, "The main problem with Rounders is that the movie never quite knows what it is about: What is the moral ante?"
Despite an unremarkable theatrical release, Rounders has a following, particularly among poker enthusiasts. In an interesting chicken or the egg situation, some speculate the film is directly responsible for the recent increase in the popularity of Texas hold 'em, while others believe that the substantial increase in the popularity of poker has nothing to do with the movie, but that same increase does have everything to do with the come-lately increase in the popularity of the film, so many years after its theatrical release.
One of the best descriptions of the movie's influence comes from pro player Vanessa Rousso: "There have been lots of movies that have included poker, but only Rounders really captures the energy and tension in the game. And that's why it stands as the best poker movie ever made."
Ideas for a sequel are in the works.
Rounders 2 (2012) is currently categorized as in development on IMDB.