To me, defining a film as a “cult movie” can very often be a kiss of death. It implies a kind of blind faith in the film’s qualities on behalf of its followers. Very often this means that a small minority of people have decided to champion the work of a director who just isn't very good. If the film were the gem they claimed it to be, more people would like it. This is not always the case. There are those rare times when a brilliant film is overlooked due poor marketing or a studio releasing it for a week in only one cinema. It happens. It is often forgotten that The Shawshank Redemption was a commercial failure on its release and it was only when it was rediscovered and eventually championed on home video that it took on the mantle of modern classic which it bears today. Perhaps the original “cult” movie is Withnail and I, a film beloved by a generation of students since its release. Then again, perhaps now the film is less of “cult” and more of a cultural touch point because it has become recognised for the very fine film it is. I suppose what I am driving at is that a film tends to retain this mythic “cult” film status until its merits are recognised and the chances are that it this never happens, the film probably isn't worth your devotion. Today’s flick of the day is a film that has thrown of its “cult” status and rightly so for it is a very enjoyable couple of hours indeed, Rounders.
In the lexicon of professional poker, a rounder is a player who tours the country looking for gambling action, a man who lives and dies by the fall of the cards. Legends of the game like Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim could be described thus and it was not a respectable career to have at the time. It is only really in the last two decades as the internet poker boom made it more socially acceptable to be a professional player that it has gained a modicum of respectability. Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, is a young man who wants to play the game at that kind of level. As the film begins, he is using his poker prowess to finance his way through law school in New York however he dreams of bigger things. In an attempt to build a bank roll he can take to Las Vegas he finds himself outplayed by a connected Russian Mafioso, Teddy KGB, played with wild abandon by John Malkovich. It is a crushing defeat not least because he now finds himself broke and driving a delivery truck for friend Knish, in a fine turn from John Turturro as a wise old poker head. He promises his girlfriend he will gamble no more and as the months pass he keeps this promise. However when his old friend Worm is release from prison, played by the always excellent Ed Norton, he returns to his previous ways largely in part to Worm’s goading and pleading. Worm is like a bad penny and despite paying lip service to Mike’s attempts to change him, eventually runs up a large debt on Mike’s tab to local hoodlum Grama. When a long shot attempt to play their way out of trouble is fatally undermined by Worm’s cheating play, Mike is left with few options. This is made worse by the discovery that Grama is backed up by Teddy KGB. Ultimately Mike is left with no option but to attempt to play his way out of a debt that Worm landed him with.
There are few elements of gambling more replete with thrilling moments of drama than the turn of the final or river card in a game of Texas Hold’Em poker. The most enjoyable moments of the film are when Mike is throwing it all on the turn of a card. The film-maker successfully wrings every moment of tension out of it by allowing us to see the cards that Mike holds. Audiences love to see an underdog win, to beat overwhelming odds and come out on top. It is at the heart of the continued success of films like Rocky and its sequels. Mike is such an underdog because we have seen him lose it all before and know that he is only back here because a supposed friend has mistreated him. It makes the denouement all the more delicious.
In a young Matt Damon, the film has the perfect blend of sensitivity and charm to carry the role and it is of course no surprise that he went on the be the star he has subsequent to this film’s release in 1998. Of course it helps that film is top loaded with excellent character actors like Ed Norton, John Malkovich and John Turturro. This is without even mentioning a crucial turn from Martin Landau.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable film which any poker player can’t help but identify with and indeed it has been credited in some quarters with helping to foment the massive increase in poker playing across the globe over the last decade.