The movie opened to mixed reviews and made only a modest amount of money. However, with the growing popularity of Texas hold 'em and other poker games, Rounders has become a cult hit.
Gifted poker player Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) loses his entire $30,000 bankroll in a hand of Texas hold'em against Teddy "KGB" (John Malkovich), a Russian mobster who runs an illegal underground poker room. Shaken, Mike decides to concentrate on law school, while promising his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo (Gretchen Mol) not to play the game anymore. Mentor and fellow rounder Knish (John Turturro) offers him a part-time job driving a delivery truck to make ends meet.
Time passes, and Mike is true to his promise. He focuses on school and work until his childhood friend Lester "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton) is released from prison. Worm is also a card player, who owes an outstanding debt accumulated before his incarceration. At Worm's influence, Mike is soon rounding again, which interferes with his studies and hurts his relationship with Jo.
When Worm is given a five-day deadline to pay off his debt, Mike joins him in a furious race to earn the money. Worm wants to cheat to win, but Mike insists on playing straight. Played out through several card games in and around New York City, the two nearly make the $15,000 needed, but the pair are caught cheating and lose their entire bankroll. After this, Worm decides to leave the city, and he advises Mike to do the same. This is when he reveals to Mike that his debt is owed to KGB, the same Russian mobster who cleaned Mike out of his $30,000 bankroll several months before. Infuriated, Mike cuts ties with Worm once and for all.
Mike refuses to flee. In a race against time to pay off Worm's debt, Mike gets his shot at redemption by placing his life on the line against the man who forced him out of the game. With the help of a $10,000 loan from his law school professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau), Mike sits down to play KGB in a no limit, heads-up game of Texas Hold'em.
In two heated heads-up matches, Mike beats KGB, winning enough to pay off Worm's debt, repay his loan to the professor, and regain his original bankroll of about $30,000. The movie ends with Mike officially dropping out of law school, saying goodbye to Jo, and going to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker Main Event.
Principal photography for Rounders began in December 1997; it took place mostly in New York. Exceptions include the law school scenes (filmed at Rutgers Law School) and the State Trooper poker game and parking lot scenes (filmed at the B.P.O Elks Lodge in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey).
- Matt Damon as Mike McDermott
- Edward Norton as Lester "Worm" Murphy
- John Turturro as Joey Knish
- John Malkovich as Teddy KGB
- Famke Janssen as Petra
- Michael Rispoli as Grama
- Martin Landau as Abe Petrovsky
- Gretchen Mol as Jo
- Paul Cicero as Russian Thug
- Melina Kanakaredes as Barbara
- Josh Mostel as Zagosh
Rounders was released on September 11, 1998 in 2,176 theaters and grossed $8.5 million during its opening weekend. It went on to make $22.9 million domestically.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote: "Rounders sometimes has a noir look but it never has a noir feel, because it's not about losers (or at least it doesn't admit it is). It's essentially a sports picture, in which the talented hero wins, loses, faces disaster, and then is paired off one last time against the champ". In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: "Though John Dahl's Rounders finally adds up to less than meets the eye, what does meet the eye (and ear) is mischievously entertaining". USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The card playing is well-staged, and even those who don't know a Texas hold-'em ("the Cadillac of poker") from a Texas hoedown will get a vicarious charge out of the action". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Norton, cast in what might have once been the Sean Penn role (hideous shirts, screw-you attitude), gives Worm a shifty, amphetamine soul and a pleasing alacrity ... Norton's performance never really goes anywhere, but that's okay, since the story is just an excuse to lead the characters from one poker table to the next".
Peter Travers, in his review for Rolling Stone said of John Malkovich's performance: "Of course, no one could guess the extent to which Malkovich is now capable of chewing scenery. He surpasses even his eyeballrolling as Cyrus the Virus in Con Air. Munching Oreo cookies, splashing the pot with chips (a poker no-no) and speaking with a Russian accent that defies deciphering ("Ho-kay, Meester sum of a beech"), Malkovich soars so far over the top, he's passing Pluto". In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle said of Damon's performance: "Mike should supply the drive the film otherwise lacks, and Damon doesn't. We might believe he can play cards, but we don't believe he needs to do it, in the way, say, that the 12-year-old Mozart needed to write symphonies. He's not consumed with genius. He's a nice guy with a skill". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, "The main problem with Rounders is that the movie never quite knows what it is about: What is the moral ante?"
Despite an unremarkable theatrical release, Rounders has a following, particularly among poker enthusiasts. There are pro poker players today who credit the movie for getting them into the game. The film drew in recent successful players such as Brian Rast, Hevad Khan, Gavin Griffin and Dutch Boyd. Vanessa Rousso has said of the movie's influence, "There have been lots of movies that have included poker, but only Rounders really captures the energy and tension in the game. And that's why it stands as the best poker movie ever made."
- Rounders at AllRovi
- Rounders (film) at the TCM Classic Movies
- Rounders at Rotten Tomatoes
- Rounders at Metacritic
- Rounders at Box Office Mojo
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