Rounders Blu-ray ReviewAugust 15, 2011
Rounders is nothing you haven't seen before. It follows the same general outline of any movie about a high-stakes hustler who gets in too deep and has to dig his way back out. It's old news. Been done a million times before. Been there, done that.
But that doesn't mean it isn't good.
As the film begins, we meet Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a brilliant poker player with dreams of earning a seat at the World Series of Poker. He's confident, and he comes within an eyelash of becoming one of the greats.
That is until he sits down across the table from a club owner with deep contacts in the Russian mafia, Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), and loses everything on a single hand.
From that point forward, Mike swears off the cards for good. But (as is often the case), he's drawn back to the table when his buddy Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison and needs a lot of cash in a short amount of time.
As I mentioned earlier, it's nothing new. From the previous three paragraphs, a potential filmgoer can probably draw up a rough outline of the plot and get around 73 percent of it right. But that has a lot to do with the strange attraction of Rounders.
It knows it's familiar and it knows that its audience will quickly recognize it as such. And despite its predictability, one can't argue that it's a pretty tightly-constructed story.
Director John Dahl presides over a story whose next turn you can see coming from a mile away and still enjoy. Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman have put together a story that isn't so big on twists and turns but instead relies on making the twists and turns it does offer count in the long run.
There are no throwaway moments in this movie. Everything that Mike and Worm go through in the pursuit of paying off their debt adds something to or reveals something about their characters. In fact, the film's engine is the relationship between Mike and Worm.
Even when they aren't on screen together, their actions tend to define their absent compatriots characters further. Of course, this is as much a compliment to the actors playing the roles as it is to the writers.
Damon has rarely been in a film in which he hasn't been at the top of his game, but a simple adjustment of one's perspective can aid in finding something special about his portrayal of Mike in Rounders.
Bear in mind, he had only just recently become "the Good Will Hunting guy." If for no other reason, Rounders is an interesting watch just to pick up the subtleties and nuances that would go on to make Damon one of the best actors in the industry.
For instance, the movie makes a big deal about focusing on the art of identifying "tells," the tiny bits of body language at the table that can clue a good poker player in as to the strength or weakness of his opponent's hand. Tells range from placing a hand over one's mouth to the way he eats an Oreo (a major factor in the climactic showdown on the felt between Mike and KGB).
Watch Matt Damon closely in this picture, and you'll notice that he never gives away a single tell at the table. Away from the table? The man's touching his face or running his hand through his hair at seemingly every turn.
It's subtle, but it's there.
As for Edward Norton, roles like Worm were his bread and butter at this point in his career, and it really shows in Rounders. Norton is the very picture of a guy who's in too deep, but he never plays his desperation in the same way twice.
Sometimes he goes for the "I just need one more, man" junkie angle. Sometimes he plays on his Mike's sympathies. Sometimes he's just a flat-out jerk. And despite constantly changing his game up, Norton never strays from hitting the mark of his character.
As for the aesthetics, Rounders makes excellent use of locations and sets, which is a pretty big deal considering that this is largely a movie about dudes sitting around playing poker. No setting looks the same, and yet all of them are familiar, a testament to both the production designer and the cinematographer.
The movie is well-directed in Dahl's hands, but there are some real problems with the pacing about a third of the way through the second act.
As noted earlier, one of this movie's strengths is the way it uses its predictability as an asset. The audience knows that it's eventually going to be revealed that Worm is in trouble, and yet there's an unnecessary half-hour build-up to this revelation.
And the payoff to all that anticipation is less than satisfying.
Also, not every performance in the picture is pure gold. Malkovich might be a great actor, but he does have a tendency to fall flat from time-to-time. He plays the role of KGB with real tenacity at some points, but for the most part he's just phoning it in with a wacky accent mixed in for good measure.
Lionsgate presents Rounders on Blu-ray with an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that's a big improvement over its previous release from Artisan. The colors are subtle and well-saturated, and the nighttime scenes come across great in hi-def. The black levels are great as well, giving surprising definition to exteriors at night and some of the seedier poker establishments seen throughout the film. There's a moment or two of some fairly distracting aliasing, but it's nothing major.
The audio, a 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio track, is equally brilliant. It's a dialogue-heavy movie, but the real audible highlights are in the sound effects (seems to be a lot of that going around lately). The flipping of the cards, the clinking of the chips, and even the splitting of the aforementioned Oreo come across with astonishing detail.
The mix is best in scenes with a bare minimum of people. The bigger the crowd, the more detail is sacrificed, with results in a sketchy presentation of some key dialogue in the film.
Beyond the Feature
The special features included in the one-disc set are also a big improvement over the prior Artisan release from 2009, which had no extras whatsoever. Having said that, however, the extras included are nothing to write home about.
Audio Commentary with Dahl, Levien, Koppelman and Norton – There are some fascinating discussions about the dialogue and about other works that influenced the filmmakers. Definitely worth a listen (most commentary tracks that feature Norton are).
Audio Commentary with Professional Poker Players – You'd think this would be pretty interesting, but it's not. If you're in to a bunch of poker pros sitting around joking with one another and rarely saying anything about real-life poker techniques and their application in the film, you'll love it. If you're like me, you'll be grossly disappointed by this track.
Behind the Scenes Special – A five-minute featurette that's little more than press junket and on-set interviews with the cast and crew. There's a brief moment with Dahl and the producers talking about the challenge of choreographing and staging a game of chance that really makes me wish they had done fifteen or twenty minutes on that subject alone. And the realization that it's a 40-second blip on a five-minute radar makes me sad.
Inside Professional Poker – Another five-minute affair that takes a look at the world of professional poker which teases a look at why the pros are the pros but, again, delivers nothing but a longing for what could have been an engaging feature.
Champion Poker Tips – This is a big ol' cheat. And, to be frank, a real pain in the ass. This features poker advice from four champion professionals that's broken into a handful of branching pods each. And each one lasts, at most, a minute. Often the time each tip takes to load is longer than the tip itself. Very, very disappointing.
Rounders is a film with a predictable-yet-engaging story with great performances that only loses its ability to entertain you once or twice.
Overall, though, if you're the type of collector who likes a variety of unique movies, the odds are pretty good that you already have a much better movie with a similar story on your shelf somewhere.
And if you're in it for the extras, look elsewhere.
Bottom line: Lionsgate did a great job of making an okay film look and sound terrific. But it's by no means a must-have.
- Jason Jarman
Shop for Rounders on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (August 23, 2011 release date).
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