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by: Scott Renshaw

In the ongoing tastes-great-less-filling verbal war of attrition between John Q. Critic and Joe B. Average Movie-Goer, a crucial common ground often gets overlooked. On the same fundamental level, every one of us loves to be taken somewhere we've never been before, to be told a story in a way it has never been told before. Movies are our eyes to previously unseen worlds, whether that new world is the surface of an asteroid, the deck of the Titanic, or behind the lines with World War II soldiers. At their most engrossing, movies offer the giddy thrill of the utterly new.

At its most engrossing, that's exactly what Rounders offers: a fascinating glimpse inside the world of high-stakes poker. Our tour guide is Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a brilliant young rounder (i.e., a pro who makes the rounds at local poker games) who loses a $30,000 bankroll on one bad night. Nine months later, Mike is walking the straight and narrow, having sworn off the game at the insistence of his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) and devoted himself to his legal studies. But trouble is just around the corner in the person of Mike's old pal Worm (Edward Norton), just out of prison with an ever-accumulating gambling debt hanging around his neck. In order to save that neck -- and his own when he makes the mistake of vouching for Worm -- Mike has to get back into the game and use every trick he's ever learned to win the biggest games of his life.

And oh, how much we learn while he does so. Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman use Damon's narration much the same way Ray Liotta's narration was used in GoodFellas -- as a sociology lesson. We learn why Texas Hold-'Em is the high stakes game of choice, how real players lure amateurs into big pots, and how Mike spots the "tells" of his opponents to help make his playing decisions. It's utterly fascinating, whether the setting is a back alley card room or a gaudy Atlantic City casino. Damon anchors the story in a solid performance as a man beginning to understand that he has a gift, not a problem. Though hooked on the thrill of winning, he's no different than a performer hooked on the thrill of an audience's reaction. Through his eyes we see poker as an art, not an addiction.

Rounders has such a solid hook that it's disappointing to watch it drift into a handful of distracting sub-plots. The relationship between Mike and Jo is too vaguely defined for their fate to matter, yet director John Dahl (The Last Seduction) lingers on their confrontations as though the obligatory love story were dramatically potent. John Turturro's role as the small-time gambler who acts as Mike's mentor is also under-developed, as is the potentially compelling interaction between Mike and an understanding law professor (a very good Martin Landau). Even the old-school chemistry between Damon and Norton -- full of almost-charming, can't-help-myself sleaze as the compulsively crooked Worm -- feels less genuine than it should.

If anything positive comes out of these half-formed relationships, it's the sense that Mike's best friend is really the game itself. Damon's charisma is never more charged than it is in the climactic showdown with the Russian gangster who beat him in the game that broke him (John Malkovich, employing his dead eyes to perfect effect and a Boris Badinov accent with considerably less success). It's a confrontation where Mike's life is on the line, but the drama is always in the game, not the potential outcome. For that confrontation, the narration grows conspicuously silent at key points, trusting you to grasp the game to which you have been introduced. Viewers who think of poker simply as gambling may have to re-think that position after sitting through Rounders. This tale shows us a different world entirely -- the world of card-player as tortured artist.

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