Poker always makes for an engaging watch. There’s something in the tension and pressure of the reveal that makes poker an excellent backdrop for stories on film, not to mention across other media. The 1998 classic Rounders is an excellent example, in which stars Matt Damon and Edward Norton travel the country in search of big money poker games, as they attempt to win enough money to pay off their debts.
As is always the way of things on the silver screen, it doesn’t go exactly smoothly for the duo. Yet with the constant threat of their violent creditors looming large, the pressure is on for them to cover the bases. The term ‘rounder’ describes players like Damon and Norton’s characters, who travel from city to city in search of the next high-roller poker game.
Rounders was one of those films that was something of a slow burner. Initially, it was moderately well received at the box office and by critics alike, but never really stood out from the crowd. That was until the poker crowd caught wind, and with the rising popularity of Texas Hold’em since the film’s release, it has gone on to be considered something of a cult film for poker fans.
Matt Damon plays the role of a gifted poker player, who is on his way to playing at the World Series. As he hones his skills and builds his bankroll, Damon’s character Mike McDermott comes a cropper when he plays against a Russian mobster, who soon relieves him of his $30,000 accumulated bankroll. Dejected and downbeat, McDermott promises his girlfriend that he will never play poker again, instead deciding to focus on his studies.
Mike’s trajectory is fixed until his old friend, Lester ‘Worm’ Murphy is released from prison. A formidable hustler and notorious cheat, Worm isn’t afraid to push the boundaries to get what he wants. It transpires that Lester owes a significant amount of money to some very dangerous people, and McDermott decides the only possible route to ensuring the safety of his friend is to get back into poker.
They are given a period of five days to complete the mission, and they are expected to pay back every penny of the money owed. A plan is hatched that will see them chasing big money poker games to recoup as much of the money as possible. Can they do it, and save Worm from a violent fate at the hands of his creditors? Will McDermott ever make it to the World Series? There’s plenty of intrigue here, and enough in this film to keep it relevant today, even for a more modern audience.
Rounders is a film primarily for poker fans, as its track record shows. Early critics described the plot as an excuse to move the characters from one table to another, with poker at the heart of what this film is all about. That’s probably a little unfair, and there’s more to it than this suggests, but broadly, if you’re into poker, this is the film for you.
Matt Damon’s performance is good, and Edward Norton is, as ever, convincing in his role. It’s not Norton’s best appearance by a long shot, but he puts in a solid shift as ‘Worm’, the less honest sidekick and childhood friend to good-intentioned Matt Damon. Damon’s performance is similarly not exactly his best work, but the film has gone on to earn him fans in a demographic that might not otherwise have been attuned to his work.
There’s a dark feel to the film, probably as a result of the relatively low budget and the indoor/gambling shots. But in terms of the story and the eventual resolution, this is more of a feel-good movie than first meets the eye.
Rounders is well worth checking out if you haven’t already, and is definitely a film that will get you in the mood for a game of poker!