Maybe someday they’ll make a movie in which the hero is a gambler who almost always wins, doesn’t show any signs of a gambling addiction, and is disciplined and even-keeled at all times. But hey, where would the drama be in that? Rounders, alas, is not that movie.
It’s a poker movie that, like most poker movies, features tense poker hands, and a hero who would probably be healthier doing something else.
Rounders starred Matt Damon and Edward Norton as two friends who both grew up in relatively blue-collar circumstances and are gambling hobbyists. Mike (Damon) has gone the respectability route and is a law student, even though his heart isn’t in it and he’d rather compete in the World Series of Poker. Worm (Norton), just got out of jail and has the bearing and values you might associate with a guy who goes by the name “Worm.”
The two men must get out of the hole, and avoid some really scary mobsters, led by Oreo-scarfing gangster/poker shark Teddy KGB (John Malkovich).
John Dahl directed the film, which was written by David Koppelman and David Levien, the future co-creators of Billions. This is set in a world of New York City money and testosterone that’s a little bit different than their future show, although both Rounders and Billions feature witty dialogue and a deep bench of talented character actors. Both even featured Malkovich as a Russian guy. And Kevin Pollak said in an interview a few years ago that he was eager to appear on Billions in part because he’s a poker guy and he knew the two writers had credibility with the game.
The film’s deep cast is a virtue, also sporting the likes of Lenny Clarke, Chris Messina, Michael Rispoli, and David Arias. Heavyweights John Turturro and Martin Landau play Damon’s respective mentors in the world of poker and law, and Landau gets a long monologue — about how he walked away from his family’s insistence he be a rabbi to be a lawyer instead — that recalls his great speech at the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors. The poker scenes are so well done that Gene Siskel, a noted poker player in his own right, stated that “the poker and strategy is first rate.”
Rounders had an unusual trajectory. It arrived in September of 1998 – 25 years ago this week — when Damon was hot off of Good Will Hunting and Saving Private Ryan, and Norton had just had the acclaimed early-career run of Primal Fear, Everyone Says I Love You, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, all from 1996. Gretchen Mol, touted on magazine covers at the time as the next “it girl,” was cast as Damon’s love interest.
The film, in its initial release, was something of a flop, making just $8.5 million in its opening weekend and $22.9 million overall. But in the few years after that, it became a foundational text during the poker craze of the early aughts. Numerous perennials of the poker scene in those years have said they got into the game due to the movie. Ironically, the film’s vocabulary of flops, rivers, and turns would have landed more with audiences if the film had arrived a decade later.
Damon was unbelievably young here, still wearing hair similar to how he did as Will Hunting, although it’s Norton who walks away with the movie as a very believable scumbag. It’s crazy that an entire Norton movie, The 25th Hour, was constructed around him being afraid he’d be too weak to survive in prison, but he’d played a guy either in jail or just out in several movies (Primal Fear, American History X, and Rounders, plus the hyper-violent Fight Club) in a couple of years before that.
Rounders — like Billions — is streaming on Showtime and Paramount+.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.