Released all the way back in 1998, Rounders is a film that has stood the test of time. Now over two decades old, it has engrossed and engaged audiences from all around the world and continues to impress thanks to its sterling acting and a fantastic script.
Richly atmospheric, the movie is set against the backdrop of New York in the 90s, where a high-stakes underground poker world offers opportunities galore for the brilliant and the bold.
Starring Matt Damon as Mike McDermott, Rounders is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest gambling movies of all time, and no film since has managed to take this crown from its brilliant hands. So, in 2019, does it still live up to the hype?
A movie with big-star muscle
When it was originally released over 20 years ago, Rounders was a celebration of sorts: A return to the ring for distinguished director John Dahl, and arguably his finest film to that point. Powered by the big-star might of Matt Damon, it offered viewers exceptional acting and the most gripping of performances.
The film’s name is derived from an obscure piece of poker terminology used to refer to hotshot players – exactly the sort of character that Damon embodies. Mike McDermott is a master card player, one who switches between gambling in darkened backrooms and applying himself in school, where he’s studying to be a lawyer.
The character is a complex one. Essentially a rites-of-passage thriller, Rounders has Damon’s character as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, struggling with a sudden influx of opportunities. Torn between the rigorous demands of law school and the easy pickings of the poker circuit, his dilemma is one we can all sympathize with, and he embodies it brilliantly.
He’s not the only star who does a phenomenal job of bringing the world of poker to life. His girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) is the angel on his shoulder, trying to encourage him towards a legitimate career path, whilst his ebullient friend Worm (Edward Norton) is her counter, tempting him back to the table over and over.
John Malkovich also shines as the villain of the piece: a Russian hoodlum-gambler who McDermott must best in order to save Worm from the calamitous debt he runs up. The performances are staggering, the talent tangible, and the action edge-of-your-seat amazing.
Rounders has always been acclaimed for its sterling acting and fantastic script, but it’s not only laymen who have lauded its brilliance. Those in the know have long praised it as well, thanks to its detailed and accurate descriptions of the world it embodies.
Rounders is a film of interiors, and it depicts them perfectly. Flitting between lurid gambling halls and tiny bare-brick cellars, it has a certain saloon-bar chic to it, and the action that takes place inside its walls is perfectly done.
Managing to showcase the many complexities of poker, Rounders gets even the tiniest details right. There are few people who understand, for example, the many different types of poker players out there. In fact, players are divided into three main groups: small stakes, high stakes, and tournament. It is in recognizing and appreciating these sorts of details that the film does such a wonderful job of fleshing out its story.
Sleek, chic, and incredibly accurate in its depictions of the poker-playing scene, Rounders has rightly earned its title as one of the best gambling films of all time, yet even this accolade falls short. A fairer statement would be this: Rounders is, quite simply, one of the best movies ever made.