"It's a sad day when you witness such a waste of fine talent."
ROUNDERS is being billed as "the new thriller from LAST SEDUCTION director John Dahl." Oddly though, ROUNDERS is anything but thrilling and hardly a thriller at that. Once again trying to place a square peg in a round hole, the movie marketing people are trying to shove this soulless piece of crass filmmaking down our throats by making us think it could be something new and original when it's exactly like all the other films that have come before it.It's also always a bad sign when the press notes that reviewers are given to accompany a film provide a glossary of terms necessary to the framework of the movie. In the case of ROUNDERS, the glossary of terms spans four pages and even if you studied them before going into the movie they won't matter much-- the movie doesn't make sense to the average reviewer let alone the average Joe who won't have the press note advantage.
Get your thinking camps on, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
What everyone has to settle for is a routine tale of a well-intentioned young man Mike McDermott (Matt Damon). He's a reformed gambler working his way through law school. He's got a great girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) but he doesn't have cash which forces him to work odd jobs to make ends meet.
Then his old gambling buddy Worm (Edward Norton) is released from prison and sucks his friend back into their old ways. At first it's merely for a passing thrill, then it's for real as Mike gets the gambling bug again. Initially his justification is that he's doing it to help his friend out the gambling debts that could get him killed. Then it's Mike's neck on the line too and he's pulled even further in than he ever expected -- at risk of losing everything he's tried so hard to build up for himself.
If the film wasn't played so coy, ROUNDERS might have been a passable little character study. As it stands though, director John Dahl and screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman pretend they've got a movie just as smart and savvy as THE STING. They think they've got twists. They think they've got turns. What they've got though is a movie that doesn't appeal to anyone but card sharks who have a love and expert knowledge of the game.
Where is the tension in a card game, when you don't know how to play the obscure card games the characters play in the film?
The film's priorities are a little screwy at times too. You want to root for Mike, but Mike's goals are too shaky and his constant willingness to help his friend Worm (and turn his back on his devoted girlfriend) is a bit suspect.
Good performances abound though. Damon continues to mine his million-dollar smile for what it's worth even though he's little more than pretty boy accouterments to the film's sketchy premise. Norton is the one that gets to act here -- once again proving himself one of the brightest and most intriguing young leading man out there. Newcomer Mol does a nice turn as Damon's girlfriend, though its hard to gauge here whether she's talented or not but the limited screen time she gets.
Three supporting players also get to shine in quirky parts. John Malkovich is absolutely evil as card maven Teddy KGB, Martin Landau plays Mike's law school mentor and John Turturro is appealing as Mike's card playing mentor.
Sadly, ROUNDERS stacks the cards against itself early on by not knowing what type of film it wants to be. It's not a thriller but it's not a very good drama either. Instead it's an offbeat little character story that would like to be PULP FICTION but will have to settle for being second-rate Scorsese.It's a sad day when you witness such a waste of fine talent like on screen here. -- ANTHONY C. FERRANTE - iF Magazine (http://ifmagazine.ifctv.com)