When “Rounders” hit theaters 23 years ago on Sept. 11th, four years before that date became notorious, it looked like “Good Will Hunting II.” Matt Damon was fresh off his Oscar win for “Good Will Hunting,” about a blue-collar-MIT-custodian genius, and now here came a story about a poker genius whose dad happened to be a college custodian.
Damon, who attended Harvard, had a knack for portraying salt-of-the-earth geniuses. But it would be remiss not to note that while both “Good Will Hunting” and “Rounders” are hidden-genius Hero’s Journey tales, “Rounders” is also a glorification of what is essentially a gambling addict’s relapse.
I mean, think about it. You’re in law school, then you exhibit a whole movie’s worth of addiction behavior, then you quit law school, and you leave town with the following quote: “First prize at the World Series of Poker is a million bucks. Does it have my name on it? I don’t know. But I’m gonna find out.”
What else would you call that? Then again, is it just a gambling addiction? Or is it also destiny? And what’s the difference? We’ll get to that in a minute.
Damon’s co-star Edward Norton was a hot commodity, having been nominated in 1996 for his film debut, “Primal Fear.” Gretchen Mol (who plays Damon’s character’s love interest) was hot too; she’d just graced the cover of Vanity Fair, which queried, “Is she Hollywood’s next ‘It’ Girl?”
The street-smart, seamy backroom milieu of “Rounders” was rife with 1970s sports references: “Worm and I fell into our old routine like Clyde Frazier and Earl The Pearl Monroe,” “You look like Duane Bobick after a round with Norton,” and “To celebrate Mike’s Ali-like return to the ring, I’ll sit with y’all for a while.” It also sported a gritty backup cast of character actors like John Turturro and Michael Rispoli (later of “The Sopranos”) who could make such lines ring with street-cred authority.
Not to mention John Malkovich’s character, Teddy KGB, whose cartoonish Russian accent is so immensely over-the-top and fun to mimic, I still hear it quoted occasionally: “He beeyit me! Strrraight up! Pay heeyim … pay dat man heeze mahh-nee.”
Though “Rounders” topped the box office on its opening weekend with $8.5 million, it ended up making $22.9 million, compared to the $225.9 million by “Good Will Hunting.” But like the proverbial cream rising to the top, “Rounders” has quietly become somewhat of a classic.
“Rounders” may also have been obliquely responsible for the early 2000s’ popularity boom of No-Limit Texas Hold’em (the main game played in the movie). There were TV tournament broadcasts and shows like “Celebrity Poker Showdown”; it was all the rage.
The movie kicks off with Mike McDermott (Damon) gambling in the illegal underground poker club of Russian mafioso Teddy KGB (Malkovich), blowing his entire savings, and then swearing off gambling for good (yeah right).
Mike had been funding his law school studies with gambling earnings. To continue studying, he takes a part-time truck delivery job offered by his gambling partner and friend Joey Knish (Turturro). Mike goes straight for a time, trying to live a peaceful life with his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo (Mol).
Then, Mike’s childhood buddy, Lester “Worm” Murphy (Norton), gets out of prison. Worm’s still carrying major debt he incurred before going to jail. Grama (Rispoli), Worm’s former enforcer, has consolidated Worm’s debt, which is continuing to accrue juice (interest). Grama gives Worm five days to pay it all back.
One of the hilarious running gags of the movie is Worm’s perennially jovial (but entirely untrustworthy) knowing smirk, intuitive understanding of addiction psychology, and devil-on-the-shoulder uncanny timing for when to say the perfect thing to cause an instantaneous collapse of Mike’s (pun intended) fragile house of cards no-gambling resolve.
Worm: “You know what always cheers me up when I’m feeling [low]?
Mike: “What’s that?”
Worm: “Rolled up aces over kings!”
Mike: “That right…?”
Worm: “Yeah, check-raising stupid tourists, and taking huge pots off of them. Playing all-night high-limit Hold’em at the Taj … ‘where the sand turns to gold.’ Stacks, and towers of checks I can’t even see over …”
Mike: “Let’s go.”
Worm: “Don’t tease me…”
Mike: “Let’s play some (…) cards.”
Worm: fist pump (as J. Geils Band’s “Funk 49” kicks in on the soundtrack).
Mike jumps back in the game to help Worm clear his debt, which naturally results in his eventually losing interest in legal studies. Jo is not happy and, heeding Mike’s best advice to her, dumps him. “I learned it from you Mike. You always told me this was the rule. Rule number one: Throw away your cards the moment you know they can’t win.”
Lots of blistering poker ensues, including a scene at a gambling resort where several denizens of the New York poker rounders scene find themselves all having unintentionally congregated at the same table. They surreptitiously gloat at the eager (but clueless) vacationers, not exactly helping each other—but not exactly hurting each other either. Mike sums this situation up with one of my favorite “Rounders” quotes: “It’s like the nature channel … you don’t see Piranhas eating each other, do you?”
Eventually Worm goes too far, talking Mike into cheating in an upstate New York game with off-duty cops; and they end up getting caught, stomped, thrown out on their ears, and losing their entire roll. Mike finally recognizes Worm for the incorrigible, parasitic ne’er-do-well he is, and leaves him to find his own way home after Worm reveals his debt is ultimately owed to the very dangerous Teddy KGB.
Mike goes begging, hat in hand, to his law mentor, professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau), gets loaned some money, and goes up against KGB one last time to save Worm, pay the professor back, win his freedom, and hopefully win back all the money he lost to KGB the first time. What do we call this? We call this extreme skill. And chutzpah. And a virulent gambling addiction.
Succumbing to Addiction Versus the Hero’s Journey
Finding one’s true calling can sometimes become a form of addiction, depending on the profession. Ask any battle-hardened Navy fighter pilot. Or NFL player. Or pro boxer. But the honoring of one’s talents is a tricky thing.
Because what if your primary talent is stealing or killing? What then? In a recent review of “The Highwaymen,” Kevin Costner’s character (Frank Hamer, the real-life lawman who killed notorious gangsters Bonnie and Clyde) related that he had wanted to become a priest but was uncannily handy with a gun. It was his overwhelming desire for revenge that led him to kill someone, thus sealing his fate. And is that necessarily a bad thing? If he hadn’t had that dark desire, Bonnie and Clyde would have wreaked substantially more havoc. It’s an interesting thing, destiny.
For Mike McDermott, it’s clearly going to be a life-long struggle, considering that he opens the movie with the voice-over monologue: “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table—then YOU are the sucker. Guys around here will tell ya, you play for a living. It’s like any other job. You don’t gamble, you grind it out.”
A “Rounders II” would have been interesting. Would Mike stay clean, like Joey Knish, grinding it out to put food on his table for his kids? Or would the severe addiction to the adrenaline high push him ever closer to the edge of recklessness, like Worm? A true Hero’s Journey means that one brings one’s gold (trained talents) back to one’s community of origin, to benefit it.
All in All
The belated success of “Rounders” was due to its feeling hyper-real, like it was written by experts who had lived those 36-straight-hour games in those smoky card caves and felt their souls ricochet from ice-cold fear to the crack-high elation of winning huge piles of money-for-nothing.
And while real poker players gave “Rounders” their stamp of approval, and many future players said it was what got them started, most of us who’ve memorized its dialogue are either card-shark wannabes or fans and connoisseurs of gritty, high-tension, American blue-collar, atmosphere-laden, bluesy-jazzy soundtrack movies with a humorous kick. In that sense, “Rounders” is related to “Midnight Run”: Matt Damon’s character is to Ed Norton’s sort of what Robert De Niro’s character is to Charles Grodin’s, but the latter film comes down harder on the comedy side.
Since the possibility of watching movies at home kicked off with the advent of VHS, movies that crash and burn on Rotten Tomatoes can slowly, by word of mouth, grow a fan club and eventually rake in lots of cash. “Rounders” didn’t start off as “Good Will Hunting II,” but if you give it a watch, you’ll discover that’s exactly what it is. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s even more entertaining—I’ve seen “Good Will Hunting” twice. I’ve seen “Rounders” at least nine times.
Director: John Dahl
Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Gretchen Mol, Martin Landau, Famke Janssen, Michael Rispoli
Running Time: 2 hours, 1 minute
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Sept. 11, 1998
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars