(US 1998)

Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Tuturro, Martin Landau, Famke Janssen and John Malkovich

Director: John Dahl

Writing credits: David Levien and Brian Koppelman

Miramax * 120 minutes

Rounders, the latest Matt Damon star vehicle, is three great performances, one good one, and a pretty blonde, all in search of a movie. The story of a "reformed" card shark, Mike McDermott (Damon) who must make one last foray into action to pay off a gambling debt incurred by his long-time friend Worm (the astounding Edward Norton), Rounders is no doubt more interesting to those who understand poker. It's "Rocky" with playing cards, and we already know going in who wins.

Directed in a gritty urban style by John Dahl, the film's pace is slow and plodding, lacking the kind of rapid cross-cuts that might make this expose of the "poker netherworld" more interesting. Damon's voice-over narration often sounds like Raymond Chandler by way of The Firesign Theatre's Nick Danger bit, and makes one long for the sophisticated wordplay of that OTHER Matt Damon star vehicle. The characters are all cliches, and only the performances make these cartoons rise above the mediocrity of the material. Matt Damon reprises his earnest-young-upwardly-mobile-but-blue-collar toughie, a role that he has down pat at this point. Before anointing Damon as the Second Coming of Tom Cruise, it's time to see if this great mop of golden hair and smiling mouth of huge teeth has any range, or if this character is all we get.

Lost amidst the Matt Damon hype machine is the amazing Edward Norton. Never mind that his parents ought to be beaten with clubs for bestowing such a terrible name on their child, never mind the bevy of blonde boys currently holding Hollywood in their golden grip, THIS is one fine actor, folks. In a role that ten years ago would have been played by Sean Penn, the chameleon-like Norton once again metamorphoses both his face and body into that of his character, crawling into the eponymous Worm, Damon's character's Evil Twin. Norton attacks his roles without once going over the top. It's a dead-on portrayal, and the film comes to vibrant life when he is on the screen. Despite a relatively small body of work thus far, Norton has already demonstrated that he can inhabit any role thrown at him, and is undoubtedly One to Watch.

Also of note is another masterpiece of character exaggeration by John Malkovich as the expert poker player and Russian Gangster "Teddy KGB". Malkovich again manages to make scenery-chewing look like finely-honed craft, making the act of splitting an Oreo cookie look like a mob hit. Unlike Norton, you never forget that you're watching Malkovich, but the pleasure of listening to his serpentine vocalizations wrap themselves around a quasi-Russian accent that can only be from "Kreplachistan" , is worth the price of admission. John Turturro is the adorably-named Joey Knish, a kindhearted gambler to whom it's just a way to feed his kids. Turturro's malevolent looks contrast with the kindliness of his character in this uncharacteristically subtle Turturro performance. And speaking of kreplach, Martin Landau is on hand with yet another of his Wise Old Jewish Guys.

Then there's Vanity Fair's current "It" girl, Gretchen Mol, as Matt Damon's long-suffering girlfriend, following in the footsteps of Minnie Driver. Mol, like Drew Barrymore, is very pretty in a kewpie-doll kind of way, but lacks the sardonic intelligence Barrymore brings to a role. She looks nice, but I was not able to buy into her as a law student. She's adequate enough that I'd like to see what she could do with a real role, and with the publicist she obviously has, I suspect we'll find out soon.

If ROUNDERS is worth seeing at all, it's for the pleasure of watching an extraordinary young actor flex his chops, and it's not the one you'd think.

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