Just when you'd think that the world of high-stakes gambling had been thoroughly exploited in films, along comes a movie so fresh, so crackling with authenticity and credibility, that your faith in the genre is redeemed.

"Rounders" isn't a blockbuster, it doesn't redefine the cinema, it's not going to blow audiences away. It's just a good, solid movie that manages to breathe life into an otherwise hackneyed narrative form.

"Rounders," directed by contemporary film noir stylist John Dahl, recalls David Mamet in its agile, poetic vernacular of the streets, Martin Scorsese in its anthropological evocation of one of Manhattan's shadow-worlds and such classics as "The Hustler" in its seedy milieu. And yet even with such obvious antecedents, "Rounders" manages to stake territory all its own as a coming-of-age story with a distinct edge.

The character coming of age here is Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a law student who has funded his education by playing poker. We meet Mike on a momentous evening in his career, playing Texas Hold'em with Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a Russian poker-club owner with a mercurial temperament and a penchant for Oreos. It's not so much a poker game as a battle of nerves. Mike has bet his entire pot on this game, and when the night is over, he will swear off poker, return to his pretty girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) and pursue a life of buttoned-down respectability.

But the straight-and-narrow routine is interrupted when Mike's best friend, Worm (Edward Norton), is released from prison. Worm has already set up a game with some country-club suckers and needs Mike to double-team them, and Mike makes a good show of demurring, for a minute or two. Will Mike return to the life for keeps? Or will he join the suckers "humping the graveyard shift wondering how they came up short"? Mike's choice makes up the ballast of "Rounders," one of the chief strengths of which is its refusal to resort to easy moral answers.

Damon plays Mike with the same fluoridated cleanliness he brought to the title character of "Good Will Hunting," meaning he's decent enough to be a preppy but knowing enough to be a professional card shark. (The title of "Rounders" refers to people who earn their living at poker.) As the puffy-eyed, scruffy Worm, Norton is a walking personification of self-defeat: He's a liar and a cheat, but his essential vulnerability keeps peeking out -- he's a sweetie with a psychotic edge.

Unlike Scorsese's films, "Rounders" doesn't romanticize the world it presents; the movie's most poignant character is the beleaguered Joey Kinish (John Turturro), a true rounder who plays cards simply to pay the rent and keep food on the table. He's not flashy or funny or terribly interesting; he's a working stiff whose 9 to 5 happens to be at the tables.

The screenwriters -- both of them making their feature debut here -- obviously know whereof they speak. Part of the joy of "Rounders" is the language, which is especially evocative in Damon's voice-over talking about suckers and flounders and hangers.

Dahl, best known for his thrillers "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction," infuses the story with taut nervous energy, especially during the opening scenes. Even before filmgoers know who these people are, they're invested, their adrenalin pumping.

Mike's law school mentor, played by Martin Landau, delivers a long-winded speech, and Malkovich tiptoes dangerously near Boris-and-Natasha territory in the accent department. But these are minor distractions in a film that is gratifyingly free of cliches and predictable outcomes.

Far from generic, "Rounders" is a genre movie in the best sense: a welcome new take on an otherwise tired cinematic staple.


Starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, John Turturro

Directed by John Dahl

Rated R (pervasive strong language, some sexuality and brief drug use)

Running time 122 minutes

Released by Miramax Films

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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