[Screen It]


(1998) (Matt Damon, Edward Norton) (R)

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Drama: Upon his longtime buddy's release from prison, a young man must decide whether to continue with his new life as a law school student, or get back into the underground world of high stakes poker.
Mike McDermott (MATT DAMON) is a former underground card shark turned law school student. Months after losing his entire savings to Teddy KGB (JOHN MALKOVICH), a master Russian player who runs the underground circuit and has ties to the Russian mob, Mike has forsaken the cards for a better life that includes his live-in girlfriend and fellow law student, Jo (GRETCHEN MOL).

Things change, however, when Mike picks up his lifelong buddy, Les "Worm" Murphy (EDWARD NORTON), who's just been released from prison. Still in debt to several disreputable characters, Worm immediately wants to use the illegal poker skills he honed in prison on naive players, and urges Mike to return as his playing partner.

Mike is tempted, but promised Jo he'd given up the game. Likewise, he doesn't want to ruin a promising law career that's being guided by his law school dean, Professor Petrovsky (MARTIN LANDAU). Even so, and despite the seasoned advice from his successful, but non-risk taking poker mentor, Joey Knish (JOHN TURTURRO), Mike reenters the game.

He's further dragged into it when Petra (FAMKE JANSSEN), an attractive Russian associate, tells him that Worm has wracked up a several thousand dollar debt on Mike's good credit. The news gets worse when both Mike and Worm learn that the latter's debt has been assumed by Teddy KGB.

With just a few days to pay back Worm's $15,000 debt or face the wrath of Teddy's henchman, Grama (MICHAEL RISPOLI), Mike takes on the risky, dangerous, and possibly impossible task of erasing his friend's debt and clearing both their names.

If they're fans of someone in the cast or of playing poker, they just might.
For pervasive strong language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
  • MATT DAMON plays the law student who breaks his promise to his girlfriend that he'd given up poker. A high stakes gambling addict, he also cusses a lot.
  • EDWARD NORTON plays Mike's unscrupulous friend who, upon being released from prison, takes advantage of Mike's good nature, name, and credit. He also cusses a lot.
  • GRETCHEN MOL plays Mike's girlfriend who must deal with his addiction.
  • JOHN MALKOVICH plays the Russian master player who also has close ties to the Russian mob.


    OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
    Beyond a few limited hands of poker played here and there, my knowledge and sense of the game -- probably like most people -- comes from different places. One of the seemingly more common sense ones is country singer Kenny Rogers and his song, "The Gambler," where he states: "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away and know when to run. You never count your money, when you're sittin' at the table. There'll be time enough for countin', when the dealin's done."

    While that seems to make perfect sense to the novice, it probably doesn't completely touch on the reality of those who play the game for a living. Going for what is presumably a realistic look at the high-end stakes of big-time poker, "Rounders" is to the world of card sharks as "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money" were to big money billiards.

    A solidly constructed, but not quite spectacular drama that features good performances from all involved, the film's only drawbacks are its predictable nature and the lack of the necessary spark to make it a standout flick. Unfortunately, and despite the stellar cast and their performances, that will most likely prevent the film from truly breaking out.

    Of course, if you're a card shark or a fan of such "recreation," you'll probably have a better time than the general audience. Nonetheless, it's always entertaining to be taken into a "foreign" world where the rules are over our heads, and for those unfamiliar with the game, this will be one of those experiences.

    While poker clearly isn't nuclear physics, screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman (collectively making their writing debut) have infused the material with enough idiomatic specifics that a working knowledge of the game certainly won't hurt since the different matches and terminology -- while again presumably accurate -- might befuddle many viewers.

    Fortunately, one of the hotter stars of the moment, Matt Damon ("Good Will Hunting," "Saving Private Ryan"), is there to lead us through the story and background material. While his voice over narration is occasionally too on the nose, much of it's needed to quickly get the audience up to speed with the rules of his character's world.

    As the card shark turned law student, Damon does a decent job portraying the gambler whose addiction nearly proves to be his undoing. Although not as good a performance as he delivered in "Good Will" (mostly due to a mildly weaker role), his big grin and charming demeanor go a long way. For the most part, he's quite believable and his cocky, self-assured and potently skilled character is the type that's an instant crowd pleaser. Consequently, it's easy to sympathize with him, especially when we know that he's clearly "falling off the wagon" again and obviously headed for trouble.

    His counterpart, Edward Norton ("Primal Fear," "The People Vs. Larry Flynt"), is quite simply outstanding, but certainly not likeable as the perpetual loser. Playing the symbolic tempting snake to Damon's "Eve," Norton perfectly creates a character who essentially ruins Mike's life by slowly luring him back into a dangerous world. Once again proving that he's of the better actors working today, Norton can't be accused of showboating when that would have been the easy way to play the character. Instead, he simply becomes Worm in an understated, but completely realistic fashion.

    In a part that's unfortunately too brief, John Malkovich ("In the Line of Fire," "Dangerous Liaisons") steals the show as the all powerful Russian thug/card shark who controls the underground poker circuit. Sporting a thick accent that he uses to maximum comic effect, and a penchant for allowing the sound and look of separating Oreo cookies to guide his playing decisions, Malkovich is a delight in the role. Wisely, the film draws to its close by focusing on his and Mike's big showdown.

    Other supporting performers are fine as well, from Gretchen Mol ("The Last Time I Committed Suicide") as Mike's girlfriend, Martin Landau ("Ed Wood") as the supportive professor, and John Turturro ("The Big Lebowski") surprisingly underplaying his role as Mike's poker mentor.

    While director John Dahl ("The Last Seduction," "Unforgettable") never gets fancy with the camera work to jack up the scenes (like Scorsese did in "The Color of Money"), the poker matches easily manage to hold our attention. And when a group of oblivious conventioneers sits down at a card shark infested poker table in Atlantic City, the scene pricelessly unfolds.

    While Dahl relies perhaps a bit too much on the protagonist's voice over, and the film never manages to fully achieve the stellar orbit it certainly deserves, it's still quite good. Playing out as one of those films that continues to grow on you days after seeing it, "Rounders" is a solidly constructed drama with some great performances. We give it a 7.5 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Profanity is extreme with more than 140 "f" words and an assortment of other words and phrases. Brief drug use occurs in at least one scene. Bare- breasted women are seen in person (at a strip club) and in many pictures covering a wall, and other sexual material is hinted at (such as several brief glimpses of women kneeling at a man's crotch).

    Some violence occurs with people beating beaten (including some bloody results), and several characters have bad attitudes toward others. Beyond some smoking and drinking, and the fact that the film may inspire kids to want to play poker and perhaps imitate the main character by betting everything they've got, most of the remaining categories have little or no major objectionable material.

  • People have drinks during some of the poker matches.
  • Joey smokes what looks like a cigarette, but may be a joint (seen from a distance and he offers it to Mike who refuses).
  • Petrovsky and his buddies have drinks and smoke while playing poker.
  • Petrovsky and Mike drink Gin.
  • Mike has a drink (Scotch).
  • We see two women in Grama's place snorting cocaine.
  • Worm's lip is bloody after being punched.
  • Both Worm and Mike's faces are rather bloody after they've been beaten up.
  • Worm has both for selling hot credit cards (before the film starts which got him imprisoned), and then for racking up a several thousand dollar debt on Mike's credit, getting him into equal trouble.
  • Mike has both for going back to gambling after telling Jo that he had given that up, as well as lying to her directly when she asked if he was doing it again. In addition, he loses most, if not all, of their money at the beginning ($30,000) and then is in bad debt (because of vouching for Worm) near the end.
  • Teddy KGB runs an underground poker circuit and he uses goons to force those who owe him money to pay or face the consequences.
  • Some scenes listed under "Violence" may be a bit tense to some viewers.
  • Some higher stake poker hands may also be tense to some viewers.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Sh*thole," "Blow job" and "Banging" (sexual), "Sucker," "Humping" (nonsexual), "Kiss my ass," "Scumbags," "Bitch" (toward a card and woman), "Bitchin'," "Balls" and "Stones" (testicles), "Pissed off," "Bastard," "Idiot," "Shut up" and "Punk."
  • The poker playing -- and high money won in some scenes -- may cause kids to want to play.
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 141 "f" words (7 used with "mother," 1 used sexually), 24 "s" words, 1 slang term for male genitals ("c*ck"), 1 slang term for breasts ("t*t"), 11 asses (3 used with "hole"), 7 hells, 4 S.O.B.'s, 1 crap, and 12 uses of "Jesus," 4 each of "G-damn" and "Oh God," 3 of "God" and 1 use each of "Oh Jesus," "Jesus Christ," "Oh my God" and "Swear to God" as exclamations.
  • Although we don't see any activity, Mike and Jo live together and share the same bed.
  • Coming home to find Jo leaving, Mike playfully tells her to stay and that "I'll be quick. You won't feel a thing." She then comments that the problem is that his statement isn't true.
  • We see Worm in a topless bar where he watches several bare-breasted women dance (and who wear small thong-like bottoms).
  • Grama takes Worm out into an alley where they come across a woman kneeling down at a man's crotch. As Grama proceeds to push Worm around, we see that the walls are entirely covered with small pictures of naked women (bare breasts, women kissing women, etc...).
  • Jokingly explaining his bloody lip, Worm tells Mike "She crossed her legs too fast" (implying oral sex).
  • Arriving in Atlantic City, Worm tells Mike to go ahead without him because he has "certain needs" he has to take care of (meaning visiting a prostitute, but we don't see anything). Mike then jokingly comments he was beginning to wonder about him and thought perhaps he had changed while in prison.
  • Petra (who shows some cleavage) kisses Mike and says that she can stay over, but he politely declines.
  • It's briefly mentioned that years earlier Worm hid from some guy because he slept with the man's mother.
  • A woman at Grama's opens the door and we see her in her bra (with cleavage). In that same building, a door opens and we see a woman kneeling at a guy's crotch and working at his belt/zipper.
  • We see two women in Grama's place dressed in some sort of leather lingerie outfits (some cleavage).
  • Commenting on the outrageous request Mike has made of him (for $15,000), Joey says that he needs a "blow job from Christy Turlington" (a model).
  • People smoke cigars and cigarettes during many of the poker matches, and some characters in the background also smoke.
  • Petra smokes a few times, as does Petrovsky, while Joey smokes once (which may also be pot, but is seen from a distance).
  • Worm and other prisoners bet with cigarettes in prison, and one of them smokes.
  • Petrovsky tells Mike a story that ends with him saying that his father never spoke to him again after he gave up the long family line of being a rabbi.
  • It's briefly mentioned that Worm's father used to beat him.
  • Addictions and how they can ruin your life (in this case, Mike is addicted to poker).
  • The game of poker.
  • Grama forcibly takes Worm out into an alley where he then pushes away a man and woman about to engage in oral sex. He then pushes Worm back against a wall and then punches him (in the face and gut) several times.
  • Mike throws his drinking glass against the wall.
  • Grama does something to a dog in his office, but we only hear something (and aren't sure if he hurt/kills the dog).
  • Grama grabs Worm as Mike tries to negotiate some sort of payment deal.
  • A bunch of cops, once realizing that Worm has been dealing from the bottom of the deck, proceed to punch both him and Mike and then throw them out into the parking lot (both guys' faces are rather bloody).
  • Teddy violently throws his container of Oreo cookies across the room and Grama violently overturns a chair during a poker match.

  • Reviewed August 31, 1998

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