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John Dahl’s Rounders: A Review by Nate Hill

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John Dahl’s Rounders is the premier poker movie, an utterly charming, never too serious and surprisingly slight look at the lives of several very different individuals whose lives revolve around the game in New York City. The main focus lands on two young men who are fast friends, yet reside on somewhat opposite sides of the responsibility coin. Poker prodigy Mike (Matt Damon) has since given up his art after a soul crushing loss to local russian bigwig Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). He’s content to simmer in solitude with his perky girlfriend (Gretchen Mol, who never fails to convince me that she’s Samantha Mathis until I double check on imdb). Right in time to disrupt his quiet life is cocky street rat Worm (Edward Norton), fresh out of prison and looking for the type of trouble that landed him there in the first place. It’s to long before he’s racked up some serious debt to dangerous people with ties to Teddy KGB, and Mike is forced to come out of retirement and risk everything he has once again, this time for his friend. The poker scenes are staged with meticulous eye for detail and mannerisms in attempt to put you at the same table as the players, and it’s nifty to see each acting style played to the microscopic hilt as Dahl maintains patient focus on his work. Norton is appropriately scuzzy with just a dollop of endearing, scrappy charm and Damon fills the protagonist’s shoes very well. It’s Malkovich, however, who pulls the stops out and is my favourite character of the piece. With a muddy russian accent that rivals his french one from Johnny English, a lazily snarky streak with just a hint of intimidation and a bag of oreos at his side without fail, he’s a hoot, holler and a half as the life of the poker party. Sexy Famke Janssen has as great bit as as shady chick with eyes for Damon and connections with dodgy folks, expertly playing the half sweet and seductive, half menacing game. Watch for topnotch work from John Turturro, Josh Pais, Michael Rispoli, Josh Mostel, Adam Lefevre, David Zayas, Goran Visjnic, Lenny Clarke and Martin Landau in an earnest turn as a kindly professor who looks out for Mike. It’s short, sweet, concisely paced, tightly written, flawlessly acted and wonderfully entertaining stuff.