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[whitespace] Rounders Chump Card: Hotshot poker player Edward Norton gambles his life in 'Rounders.'

Matt Damon bluffs his way through 'Rounders'

By Heather Zimmerman

IT'S AN UNUSUAL MOVIE that champions pursuing a life that might potentially lead to violent death, but when the choice is between lawyering and professional poker playing, as it is for the hero of Rounders, well, who wouldn't prefer to be hunted down by a loan shark? According to director John Dahl's portrayal of law school, the poker table rather than the courtroom is a much happier place for anybody. The antithesis of lively underground card clubs (invitingly bathed in warm, hazy hues), an airless, dank law school is where reformed gambler Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), chooses to start over after a career-ending poker loss, and where Mike has met his prim and disapproving live-in girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol), who, like most upstanding females in "buddy" movies, just can't seem to understand Mike's true passion in life--in this case, poker.

What gives Rounders the element of a buddy movie is Worm (Edward Norton), a longtime good friend who pulls Mike into his troubles after his release from prison. Before his incarceration, Worm had racked up debts with local loan sharks, and the debts have been taken over and increased by Russian mafioso (and crack poker player, of course), Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). Worm needs Mike's poker skills to help him win enough money to pay off the price on his head, but compounding Worm's problems is his inability to admit his losses and to acknowledge that times have changed. Norton's performance makes truly claustrophobic the momentum of an unwise gambler's downward spiral.

Damon is generally believable enough, but his laconic narration is too self-conscious and overshoots the subtle film noir bravado it's meant to imitate. Ultimately, Mike's poker-playing cohorts are far more interesting than Mike himself, and although that may be a good illustration of why he should abandon law and stick with poker--it's his destiny, after all, as even his kindly law professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau) advises him--the supporting characters can't help but detract from a less-intriguing protagonist. Worm and cooly compassionate fellow rounder Knish (John Turturro) are simply more interesting to watch than a rehashing of Damon's golden-boy-of-humble-origins shtick--it was perfect for Good Will Hunting, but in this seedy underground, no matter how much we're supposed to believe the criminal code respects Mike's "playing straight," this milk-fed, gee-whiz hero seems like he would get eaten alive long before he ever had a chance to play the game, let alone make a comeback.

Rounders (R; 120 min.), directed by John Dahl, written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, photographed by John-Yves Escoffier and starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton.

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From the September 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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