Rounders: a film of card sharks, gangsters and Oreos

“Check.” “Call.” “Stop splashing the pot.” “Five points then the juice starts flowing.”

Who knows what it all means? But when the seedy characters in the underground poker world of Rounders (Miramax) jive these phrases with each other, they enthrall the audience.

Rounders is the tale of Mike McDermott (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting), a reformed card shark turned law student and loyal boyfriend. McDermott is dragged back into the secret world of high stakes poker to help an old friend pay off his never-ending gambling debts.

Of course the old friend, Worm(Edward Norton, Primal Fear), just was released from prison and is the quintessential bad influence. Worm is only one of a host of other unsavory characters to which McDermott and his wallet must answer.

The entire film revolves around McDermott’s dilemma: Should he abstain from his gambling habit and get the girl and a law degree, or give into the intense thrill of high stakes poker and risk losing everything? The plot is formulaic, but fascinating characters such as Worm enliven the film.

Damon’s portrayal of McDermott is so convincing that the part appears to have been written for him. He has a gift for playing the over-confident, boy genius types.

One might question, though, how a Wonder-bread white boy with Damon’s innocent mug could get involved in this risky lifestyle. However, Damon’s portrayal of McDermott is so natural the audience is able to suspend any disbelief.

Damon also delivers a lively on-going narrative throughout the picture that offers short character histories, wise words from his poker mentors and general internal dialogue. It works as an effective device that gives the audience a good sense of McDermott’s attitude and mentality toward the game and his predicament in it.

The real treat of Rounders is Teddy KGB, played by master of eccentric personalities John Malkovich(The Man in the Iron Mask). Teddy KGB, the Russian proprietor of the riskiest game in town, is obsessed with winning, control . and Oreo cookies. The mannerisms Malkovich develops for his character are brilliant. Even with all of his quirks, Teddy KGB still maintains his role as a poker maniac to be feared.

The only unbalanced element of the movie is Gretchen Mol’s (The Last Time I Committed Suicide) portrayal of McDermott’s love interest, Jo. When Jo catches on that he is back in the habit and leaves him, the audience is supposed to feel remorse and hope the couple will work it out. Instead, the viewer is relieved he gets rid of the nag. Mol’s portrayal of Jo only drives home the message that McDermott’s real love interest is the thrill of the game.

Rounders includes the enticements to lure audiences to the theater and the elements needed to enthrall them throughout the film: Great characters. An intense plot. New York’s strange underground. Tourists who are duped in Atlantic City by McDermott and his crew of card sharks. Money thrown around like there’s no tomorrow. Brief nudity and drug use. Leaving the straight and narrow life for trouble and risk.

Rounders opens in theaters Friday.

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