I’m sure you’ll agree when I claim that John Malkovich may be two cards short of a full deck. However, I often find that his characters charm their way into my heart with each quirky nuance. Had he not played Russian poker player with a sophisticated palate for Oreos, ROUNDERS may not have scored as high as it did. Way to go Malkovich! You fly that freak flag!
Mike (Matt Damon) has an impressive knack for card gambling. When he loses everything to Russian card shark Teddy KGB (Malkovich) he is forced to give up the game and make money the good old fashioned way in order to put himself through law school. Years later, when his long-time friend and former card partner Worm (Ed Norton) is released from prison, he convinces Mike to return to the tables for just a few more rounds—for old time’s sake. It isn’t until later when Mike discovers that Worm owes several thousand dollars to various card sharks around the city that he makes the decision to go back into the underground betting world, determined to clear his friend’s debt before walking away from the cards forever.
One of the big themes in ROUNDERS is that good poker players play the man across the table, not the cards. Watch the eyes. Watch the hands. Play it cool. Show no emotion. Damon committed to a pretty impressive poker face. I understand that masking one’s emotions is an important trait to the art of card playing, yet I found it made Damon almost bland when he was on-screen. Most of the film features Mike explaining certain plays in intricate detail through voiceover and even then he sounds guarded. If there was some inner turmoil going on inside, Dahl gave him no direction to emotionally bring that to the camera.
Norton on the other hand lived and breathed his character. Worm had not only advanced his skills in prison, but was eager to celebrate in winnings that didn’t include a carton of cigarettes. He literally itched with excitement and life, making his way from the jail house to the country club within minutes of being released. You hated the way he manipulated Mike through guilt, but you understood because everyone can relate to that person in our life who will always need to be bailed out for their overaggressive choices.
The moments that truly lifted the film from its doldrums were those scenes when Mike or Worm broke down the specifics of a card game. At times, the “poker language” seemed like they were from another planet. But it was effortless and the viewer is forced to go with the flow. The mental strength, patience and skill that go into each hand are mesmerizing to watch unfold. The scenes where Worm and Mike fall into their old rhythm of playing the poor saps around the table were highly entertaining. And the fact that Teddy KGB stores his Oreos in poker chip holders was a genius move on someone’s part.
If you are a die hard card player, ROUDNERS is definitely the show for you. Even if you don’t follow or enjoy a Thursday night game of Texas Hold ‘Em with your girlfriends, the film does have its moments. Sure, the plot is predictable, but it’s definitely worth a rent.
Video: 1080p High Definition: Dahl does a good job making the underground poker facilities equally high dollar and yet seedy at the same time. The shots in Vegas were bright and fun—just as you would expect them to be.
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio: This was not an action film with things blowing up or cars crashing. Instead, the voiceover from Damon’s character Mike seemed dull. There was one fight scene that was exciting to watch and hear. Other than that, just a bunch of dialog and card flipping.
Audio Commentary with Director, Screenwriters and Edward Norton: The commentary participants talked a lot about their respect for poker players and how hard they worked to make every moment authentic.
Behind the Scenes Special (5:19): Actors discuss how they immersed themselves into card boot camp. Damon was particularly interested in being credible and authentic. He wanted to know the language as well as the movement. Malkovich said that it was like Shakespeare. Since this movie was made 13 years ago, Damon mentioned the fact that he was excited to work alongside such great actors as Norton and Malkovich.
Inside Professional Poker (5:38): This bonus feature interviews various World Series of Poker players who remind us that poker playing is not a game. It’s a business. It’s about making better decisions than your opponent. The feature tells a brief history about the World Series and how the organization invited Ed Norton and Matt Damon to participate in 1998.
Champion Poker Tips (about one minute each) Johnny Chan, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Moneymaker