Since distancing himself professionally from Good Will Hunting co-writer Ben Affleck, Damon’s career has soared, and his recent Bourne series have made him a bona-fide leading man. So a good time, then, to take a look back at his first lead performance, in 1999’s Rounders.
Mike (Damon) is a promising young law student. He is intelligent, promising, and has a beautiful girlfriend. Oh, and he likes to play cards. By day he works hard on his studies, but at night he enters a different world. Up ’til now he’s played the smart game, grinding out the wins, paying his tuition. But tonight, he’s taking a run at the big money, playing a high stakes game at Teddy KGB’s (John Malkovich) place, with three stacks of high society. When his luck runs out, he gives up the game.
He takes a job driving a truck, from Knish (John Turturro), a journeyman player, making a living playing poker the smart way. Mike concentrates on his studies, trying to placate his seething girlfriend. All goes well, until Mike’s old friend Worm (Ed Norton) is released from prison.
Worm is keen to get back to hustling at the card table, and is dismayed his friend isn’t playing anymore. Slowly, Mike finds himself sucked back into the poker world. His gambler’s mentality clashes with his girlfriend’s want of stability. Worm rocks the boat, and Mike ends up swimming, giving in to his card playing urges. But there’s a problem. Worm owes money, and he’s gotten Mike seven grand in the hole by using his credit. Mike and Worm negotiate with the man who wants the money, and have three days to go on a hot run, and make fifteen grand from nothing playing poker.
There have been a few poker movies over the years. Considering it’s enduring appeal, particularly over the last ten years, it’s surprising there haven’t been more. More surprising is the lack of good poker movies. Rounders is thought of as one of the best by many, including some professional poker players. Whilst many poker movies trade on the idea of players having a sixth sense, and playing based solely on reading opponents, Rounders is much more realistic about how a good player reads a game.
Part of the reason why poker movies have such a bad reputation is a lack of research into how the best play poker. A knowledge of the rules is not enough to make an authentic poker story. Rounders manages to avoid many of the tired conventions of poker movies. When Mike and Worm start their attempt to accumulate winnings, you think you know what might happen. They raise the money, but miss the deadline by minutes. Or they raise enough, but get greedy and don’t walk away from the table. So when the endeavour falls apart so quickly, it’s a genuine surprise.
Most movies also tend to lead up to a big tournament, with all the main characters battling it out on the final table. The hero and villain are the last two, and four aces is beaten on the last hand by a royal flush. Mike and Teddy KGB go straight in to heads-up play, in a dingy hole, no bright lights and glamour, another refreshing change. Heads-up play doesn’t give either player any chance of a break, making it an arduous battle. This gives the eight hour long game an epic feel. And whilst heads-up play can also be hard work to watch, we are not subjected to large chunks of it, focusing more on the tension between the two players.
Does Damon make the most of his first real lead role? His performance is very much one of an actor still finding his feet. Mike isn’t really a very likeable character. He is arrogant. He shuts his girlfriend out of his other life. And even though Worm causes chaos when he shows up, and acts like a jerk, Mike really isn’t sympathetic enough. Yes, he extends his line of credit to Worm, but he doesn’t offer him a lot of support either. It can’t be easily being released from prison, with no assets and people gunning for you. When Mike takes responsibility for Worms debts, putting himself at risk, it’s really more out of guilt than unity. And Mike’s sense of superiority, both over Knish for his unambitious grinding style, and over every casual player he takes money from gives him an air of real arrogance.
A more experienced actor would be able to find a way to make the character likeable despite all this, but Damon at this point in his career just didn’t have the skills to do this. Norton on the other hand, despite portraying a character with no discernable redeeming values, does have the ability to add a sparkle to Worm. Turturro is great, as always, in the part of the world weary grinder, doing his best to look out for Mike, despite his advice being unwanted. John Malkovich? His performance, and his Russian accent, divides opinion down the middle. He’s certainly having fun, and the quote ‘let’s play some cards’ will go down as one of the great lines in movie history, though the reason why is impossible to convey on paper.
Rounders is a good film, and manages to convey both the thrill of taking down a big pot, and the agony of losing your whole roll on the turn of one card. Ten years later, Rounders does still hold up, though the poker boom and rise of internet poker make some of the conceits out of date. Mike’s question to his girlfriend, ‘Why do you think the final table of the World Series is always contested by the same five guys?’ is a relic. Nowadays, it’s rare for more than one pro player to even make the final table. And travelling to Las Vegas with his 10K entrance fee? Now he’d just enter a $200 satellite.
Rounders is available now on DVD
The Informant hits theatres in the UK this Friday 20th November
Bazmann – You can now follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann