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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 1/31/02

1998 (1999) - Miramax (Buena Vista)

review by Drew Feinberg of The Digital Bits


Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/D-

Specs and Features

121 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2:35:1), single-sided, single-layered, keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) subtitles: English & French, Closed Captioned

"You don't hear much about guys who take their shot and miss. But I'll tell you what happens to 'em. They wind up humping crappy jobs on graveyard shifts trying to figure out how they came up short."

So sayeth cocky card shark/law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), after blowing three stacks of high society (that's $30,000 to you non-rounder folk) to scenery and Oreo chewing Teddy KGB in the opening scene of John Dahl's love letter to underground poker. Sure, it's a very Hustler-esque (Paul Newman, not Larry Flynt) way to open a movie, but to evoke perhaps the best movie about obsessive gambling out there is a solid way to grab my attention.

Of course, watching a movie about a card shark who never again enters the water would be pretty much like watching Showgirls on ABC - you'd be painfully aware that you're not seeing the best parts. Not that Showgirls has any "best parts" per se, but to paraphrase Oran Juice Jones, "Showgirls without exploitation is like cornflakes without the milk." Back to Rounders... Mike is stuck driving a truck for tuition money, living with whiny Jo (Gretchen Mol) and grinding out a legit, but unstimulating, life... which would make for a pretty boring movie.

Enter Edward Norton, aka Worm, who kicks the movie into gear and, like heroin personified, lures Mike back into his old habits. Sure, Worm isn't exactly the best influence in the world, putting Mike into the "worst kind" of debt and getting his pretty boy face smushed (Mom always taught me to avoid people with names like Worm - go figure.) But Mike not playing poker would be like Will Hunting not doing big-time math or James Lipton not being pretentious, so we welcome Mike back into his old stomping grounds with open arms.

Edward Norton is perhaps the best actor out there these days, and he makes Worm the sleazeball you love to hate. He's like a combination of De Niro in Mean Streets, Penn in Carlito's Way and Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (a holy trinity) - the sidekick who makes you want to slap the hero upside the head and say, "Get away from him, you schmuck!" But all the while giving electricity to every scene they're in.

And isn't it always fun to be introduced to, and sucked into, a world we know nothing about? The script is chock full of phrases like "flopped the nut straight" (try using that one at work tomorrow). And like Boiler Room, it really feels like it's written by somebody in the know. Damon does a good decent job with his role, but the it's the character actors who really stand out in this one. John Turturro, John Malkovich and Martin Landau all turn in solid performances. And as for Gretchen Mol... did I say how good those other guys were?

Jean-Yves Escoffier (Good Will Hunting, Nurse Betty) is one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood today. He knows how to light a movie with the best of 'em, and the look of this 2:35:1 DVD is stunning. It's a clean transfer, with pure saturation, and the picture is incredibly sharp and detailed. If only it were anamorphic widescreen, I'd almost be tempted to say it's reference quality. Alas, Miramax will have to re-issue it in order to get me to reconsider. Get on it, Harvey!

The 5.1 soundtrack is also solid. But of course, this isn't The Matrix - the dialogue is the star here. The mix is heavy on the front and center channels, although Christopher Young's score does take advantage of the surrounds, as do the scenes taking place in crowded poker joints. There's no distortion, and the overall sound quality is full and rich.

But the best part of the disc is the extras! One commentary by Dahl, another by Damon and Norton playfully verbally sparring with each other, an hour long documentary featuring Ricky Jay teaching the ins and outs of poker cons, a John Dahl interview by David Mamet and an interactive game where you have to tell what cards a player has by analyzing their cookie tells...! Yeah, right. I wish. Sadly, this disc is like Whitney Houston after fasting for a weekend surgery. Bare, bare bones. A full-screen trailer is what you get here... and that's it. Oh wait, I forgot the "If you liked this title" section, with it's oh-so-insightful recommendation that if I were to dig this film, Supercop would be right up my alley. Which is about as useful as recommending Boogie Nights to a person after they profess an affinity to Paulie.

The bare DVD aside, Rounders is a truly unappreciated genre movie. It knows what it is and never tries to be anything different. You can pretty much tell where it's going, and yet you enjoy the ride getting there.

Drew Feinberg

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