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Mike is a law student who has once been burned playing poker, and has turned his back on gambling in order to settle in with his girlfriend Jo, and his studies. When his former partner in crime Worm is released from prison, though, he is tempted back to the card tables and realises how much he enjoys the thrill of gambling. Jo leaves him, and he goes on a poker spree with Worm, in an attempt to recoup a debt that Worm has carried over from before prison. The men to whom Worm owes the money get heavy, and Mike is forced into a showdown with Teddy KGB, the hood to whom he lost his life savings a year before.
For more about Rounders and the Rounders Blu-ray release, see Rounders Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on August 9, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: John Dahl
Writers: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen, John Malkovich
» See full cast & crew
Rounders Blu-ray Review
You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, August 9, 2011
If The Hustler begat The Cincinnati Kid, did The Cincinnati Kid begat Rounders? Many people (including me in my review of The Cincinnati Kid) have remarked on the basic similarity between the McQueen and Newman films, despite obvious differences. Both films posited up and comers in activities—pool in The Hustler and poker playing in The Cincinnati Kid—rife with subterfuge and backstabbing, and both featured epochal "battles" (for want of a better term) between the young turks and older, much more experienced masters. In the case of The Hustler, it was Paul Newman's Fast Eddie against Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats, the best pool player on the planet. In The Cincinnati Kid, it was Steve McQueen's The Kid attempting to out bluff Edward G. Robinson's The Man. Both films had decidedly different tones and even endings (though at least part of The Cincinnati Kid's ending was imposed by the studio over director Norman Jewison's objections), and so the comparison can only go so far. But Rounders picks up the poker gauntlet rather squarely from The Cincinnati Kid, upping the ante (no pun intended) by having two young guys on the make, with one (you guessed it) taking on a Big Kahuna in the underground poker world of New York City in an epochal battle that may actually literally be life and death. Rounders, unlike either The Hustler or The Cincinnati Kid, has a sort of carefree, devil may care ambience about it. It's not exactly played for laughs, but there's a lightness to the film that is tonally quite apart from the two early 1960's films, and which helps some of the ludicrous developments of the Matt Damon-Edward Norton starrer to go down at least a little more easily.
"Rounders" are professional or semi-professional poker junkies who make the rounds looking for high stakes games. In Rounders, the story is told (literally via a lot of voiceover work) from the perspective of Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a guy with a knack for knowing what his opponent holds, but who is trying to become a productive member of society by earning a law degree. The film opens with a quick, devastating match between Mike and a New York City card shark, a Russian émigré called Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). The voiceover convinces us that Mike knows exactly what's going on and is about to take down one of the biggest players in the Big Apple. Not exactly. Mike is left destitute, or at least cash poor, and decides to toe the line, walking a straight and narrow path by turning his full attention to his law studies while making ends meet by driving a delivery truck on the graveyard shift, a truck and route provided to him by one of his poker buddies, Knish (John Turturro).
The film really gets into its meat once another one of Mike's buddies, this one a childhood friend named "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton), is released from prison and lures Mike back into a hustling lifestyle. "Worm" at least has a motivation for hustling—he's deeply in debt and it turns out that Teddy KGB holds the marker and isn't above violence, maybe even murder, to prove how serious he is about collecting. "Worm" doesn't initially let Mike in on this little secret, instead slowly wheeling and dealing his longtime friend into repeatedly vouching for him, until Mike's life may well be on the line.
Rounders is both invigorating and maddening in about equal measure. The film does a superb job of capturing the adrenaline charged life of Mike and "Worm," and also manages to bring some visceral excitement to what is basically the static pursuit of poker. But there are also some logical disconnects in this film that are absolutely staggering. Damon wasn't quite yet the superstar he is today when he made Rounders, but his film persona was already amazingly intact, and it's just hard to buy a somewhat morally ambiguous character like Mike emanating out of Damon's angelic face. Also problematic is the whole relationship between Mike and "Worm." "Worm" repeatedly gets Mike into one scrape after another, and as the old song says, "you gotta know when to fold 'em," and yet Mike never folds with regard to his puppy dog like companionship with "Worm."
By far the oddest thing about Rounders, albeit one with some passing comedy relief, is John Malkovich's over the top performance as Teddy KGB. It would be tempting to call this work Grade A Ham, but considering the nicely understated work of Martin Landau as Damon's Jewish law professor, a character who forsook a career as a Rabbi, that comparison might not be completely kosher (sorry for the horrible multi-level pun). Malkovich doesn't just chew the scenery in Rounders, he virtually devours it, swallowing it whole cloth. With a bizarre, nearly incomprehensible accent, scraggly appearance and weird, tic-filled mannerisms, his Teddy KGB is unforgettable, though not necessarily in a good way. All joking aside, it's instructive to contrast this performance with the nicely modulated Landau and even Turturro, who manages to bring some color to a role without splattering the paint across the walls a la Malkovich.
Despite these problems, Rounders manages to be an extremely entertaining film. It's wildly improbable and at times just bordering on the ludicrous, but it's well paced enough that most of the time the issues with script and characters don't seriously hobble the film's forward momentum. The high stakes world of Texas Hold 'Em is something that's going to be foreign to many, if not most, viewers, and so some of the ins and outs of the film may zing over individual viewer's heads, but even so, the film's fundamentals remain strong enough to carry it through. Rounders may not be a royal flush by any means, but it's at the very least a good, solid inside straight.
Rounders Blu-ray, Video Quality
Rounders arrives on Blu-ray with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. I frankly haven't seen the previous Alliance release and so can't offer thoughts on how this stacks up, though if that Alliance release is like many other Alliance offerings, my hunch is this new Lionsgate release is hands down the better offering. This Blu-ray offers really remarkable clarity and sharpness, with nicely saturated colors and solid black levels which help to make the nighttime scenes and darker interior segments revealing some surprising amounts of shadow detail. Fine detail overall is exceptional, from the scraggly strands of Malkovich's beard, to the ornate Rococo furnishings of some of the casinos. Some extremely minor aliasing crops up on things like a chain link fence early in the film, but artifacting is minimal and negligible.
Rounders Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Rounders' lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track may seem like a bit of overkill for a movie like this which is dependent on smaller dialogue beats as well as sit down activities like poker playing, and yet there's a nice amount of surround activity here, albeit rather subtly at times. New York locations offer a wealth of ambient environmental sounds dotting the soundfield, but even in the poker sequences, there's some very smart attention paid to directionality in terms of everything from dialogue to the snap of cards being placed on the table, or the clipped sounds of plastic chips being stacked. Crowd scenes offer a bit more sonic activity, as might be expected. Fidelity is excellent, with all dialogue being presented crisply and cleanly (though Malkovich is all but incomprehensible a lot of the time). Aside from one or two bombastic sequences, there's no real dynamic range to speak of, but the overall mix is very artfully handled.
Rounders Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Rounders Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Rounders died a pretty quick death during its theatrical exhibition, but like so many films in the home video age, it's been acclaimed as a modern masterpiece by a coterie of fans who have helped make it into something of a cult sensation. Rounders is certainly no masterpiece (sorry about that, coterie of fans), but it's a surprisingly engaging and entertaining film that features early work from Damon and some fine supporting turns by Norton, Turturro and Landau. I don't know quite what to make of Malkovich in this film, but let's just be charitable and call him "interesting." Rounders may be as improbable as that infamous last hand in that "other" poker film, The Cincinnati Kid, but it's a fun ride nonetheless. With a solid visual and audio presentation and some appealing extras, this release is Recommended.
Rounders: Other Editions
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• Rounders Blu-ray - June 14, 2011
Lionsgate Films will release one of Miramax's most beloved catalog titles on Blu-ray this summer: the crime drama Rounders. Directed by John Dahl (Joyride), Rounders tells the story of a retired poker player (Matt Damon, True Grit) forced to re-enter the game ...
• Rumor: Rounders Gets May 2010 Date - July 6, 2009
According to updated information on Amazon.com, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment's delayed Blu-ray release of 'Rounders' will now be released in May of next year. No reason was ever given for the delay, but one possible reason may be so it can coincide with ...
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