Wow, looks like it’s time to party like it’s 1999, I mean 1998, up in here! Time really flies when you’re having fun. It seems like yesterday when I was watching these two up-and-comers tackle the screen with an industry veteran. The newbies were Matt Damon and some kid named Edward Norton. The veteran was some badass named John Malkovich. Honorable mentions go out to that fine piece of exquisiteness known as Famke Janssen and muchos props to John Turturro, Gretchen Mol, and Martin Landau for “rounding” up a pretty impressive cast in a most low-key film. Cool, let’s hit it.
Drop two parts young-yet-to-be-megastars like Matt Damon and Edward with an one part already established badass like John Malkovich add a deck of cards with a Famke Janssen twist and what do you get? No, not a weak drink, but a pretty strong film that up to that point was not composed of films depicting kids rolling over casinos and making it look like child’s play. Rounders is the story of a Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) who is a law student that ends up going head to head with Teddy “KGB” (John Malkovich), who is a Russian mobster that holds illegal poker games at his joint. Guess what, Mike decides to err on the side of caution and ends up losing it ALL. There goes his law school tuition and he is relegated to driving a food truck to make deliveries on a borrowed truck.
Mike decides to give up the seedy world of high stake card games and settle into a working life while living with his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol). Time passes, and his childhood best friend Lester “Worm” Murphy is released from prison and anxiously awaits getting back together with Mike so that they may take back the city for all it’s worth. The beginning of Rounders is extremely rough to get through for the simple fact of how it’s set up. It is very painful to watch Mike lay it all on the line and lose it all. I guess you have to stick around for the resolution, but in watching the beginning, I now know why I do not gamble. Yikes.
Damon and Norton were just kids when they filmed Rounders, but their youth does not hinder their performances at all. They both play it straight and close to the chest. I felt sympathetic for Mike, but as time wore on I really grew to dislike “Worm,” because it’s his fault for dragging Mike down with him. Let’s just say that Worm lives by a different set of rules when it comes to playing cards. Other characters that come into the feature, and help make a little picture like this seem that much more epic, are Joey Knish (John Turturro), who owns the truck that Mike uses for work , and is the only Poker mentor he has ever had, and Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau) who is a judge and one of Mike’s instructors at Law School. Petra (Famke Janssen) is just hot.
I enjoyed Damon’s performance as the lawyer in training, and kind of hated Edward Norton as Worm. Not that he was bad as Worm, but Worm is a piece of crap that tends to bring all those that he surrounds himself with down. Not cool. Malkovich is delicious as Teddy “KGB.” Teddy is one of those types of underground mobsters that you don’t want to owe anything to. I also think that Martin Landau gives a great supporting performance, and his scene with Matt Damon in the restaurant is an amazing one.
Rounders also has the distinction of having simple foreshadowing in a film five minutes in. There’s no elaborate set-up, it just happens. If you can guess what it is, I’ll give you a nickel. It’s pivotal and it was brought to my attention by a film instructor that I look up to a couple of years ago. It was pretty funny when I watched Rounders again for this Blu-ray that I had that Ah-Ha! moment. Rounders has ridiculous replay value.
Rounders is presented in 1080p, 2.35:1, widescreen. Shot on film, Rounders looks ever so sleazy, when in illegal poker rooms, but totally warm and fuzzy when in the confines of classy casinos and campus interiors. I love low light in general, and Rounders is saturated by it in almost every interior setting. You’ve got dingy cigarette and cigar smoke filling up the airspace along with the murkiness of New York City, and the Blu-ray presentation handles all of these factors with ease. Flesh tones are natural, and I did not detect any instances of DNR or banding issues. There are moments of slight edge enhancement, but that’s about it with regards to the lows. Contrast is neutral and black levels never crush. Rounders has never looked better. I should know, because I owned the crappy non-anamorphic release along with the special edition.
Rounders is presented in DTS-HD Master 5.1. Again, just like the video, Rounders has never sounded better than it has on this Blu-ray. Dialogue is king here. You can hear what all the players are saying clearly and distinctly without any problems. Even Malkoviche’s heavy Russian accent is easily understandable. Ambient sounds are also clear, as are the front speakers. The LFE handles the lows without problems, but again, for a picture like this, everything other than what’s going on in the center channel is an “ambient” sound. It ain’t that kind of a movie, so don’t expect explosions and martial arts action here.
Rounders has a small helping of special features that are, were, pretty indicative of the times of early DVD. Technically, they’re ports from the special DVD that was released a few years ago. We have director, writers, actor, and poker player commentaries, interviews with the cast and crew, and some footage and interviews with the actual champions of real stakes poker.
- Audio Commentary with Director John Dahl, Screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and Actor Edward Norton
- Audio Commentary with Professional Poker Players
- Behind-the-Scenes Special
- Inside Professional Poker
- Championship Poker Tips from Four Professionals
Rounders holds up remarkably well all of these years later. The Blu-ray serves up a nice video and audio presentation with the special features being the only thing that bring the overall grade down. It’s not a deal breaker, though. Rounders is one of the best films about the dark side of Texas hold ’em Poker ever made, and the brilliant cast is one of the contributing factors. Give it a spin.
Order Rounders on Blu-ray!