Despite some effective performances and tense scenes, "Rounders" may be consigned to be "the Matt Damon movie that followed `Good Will Hunting' and `Saving Private Ryan.' "
That would be unfortunate, since the film - flawed as it is - deserves consideration on its own merits. For one thing, this dramatic thriller has a terrific ensemble cast. And it also shows what director John Dahl ("Unforgettable," "Red Rock West") can do with such a cast.And even if the film is not quite on par with classic gambling movies of the past ("The Sting," "Color of Money" and "The Hustler"), it's a pretty good one.
Obviously, the focus of the film is Damon, as Mike McDermott, a former poker "shark" trying to clean up his act by completing law school studies. Helping in those efforts are his supportive girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol), and his mentor, a sympathetic judge and law professor (Martin Landau).
But Mike is quickly dragged back into the world of high-stakes gambling by his best friend, Les "The Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton), which puts him at odds with Jo and threatens to destroy his college career.
Worse yet, Worm also begins running up debts in Mike's name - so many, in fact, that Russian gangster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) gives them just five days to raise the $25,000 they owe him, or else.
To their credit, Dahl and screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman don't try to glamorize gambling. Instead, they concentrate on its devastating and sometimes tragic consequences.
And while the film is a mite too slow in places (it's at least 15 minutes too long), Dahl does a fine job balancing the humor and suspense. He and the scripters could have held back a bit on the excessive profanity and other seedy content, though.
As for the cast, Damon is as personable as always. But it's really Norton, with his weaselly yet still likable turn, and both Landau and John Turturro (in too-brief supporting roles), who bring the film to life.
Unfortunately, they're undermined to a small extent by Mol, who's too stiff, and Malkovich, who at least tries to overcome his awful, fake Russian accent.
"Rounders" is rated R for profanity, violent fist fighting, use of vulgar slang and some vulgar gestures, female nudity, drug use, use of ethnic slurs, brief simulated sex and gore.