Lionsgate // 1998 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 17th, 2011
You've got to play the hand you're dealt.
The first DVD I ever watched was American History X. I knew nothing about the film, and considering his career until that point only included three credits I hope I can be forgiven for not having a clue who Edward Norton was. Watching American History X, I thought they'd gotten some reformed Neo-Nazi in the role, some guy trying to make up for the sins of his past by starring in a film about the evils or racism. This was before Fight Club; this was before The Incredible Hulk. When I found out that Edward Norton was an actor, I knew he was a guy to watch. When I found out not long after that he starred in a film with Matt Damon -- who was still riding high from Good Will Hunting -- I was all in. Their collaboration, Rounders, remains for me a compelling example of indie drama and the kind of film that Miramax was brilliant at producing. Now fans can enjoy Rounders (Blu-ray), an excellent hi-def port of the previously available special edition DVD.
As the film opens, young law student and poker player Mike (Matt Damon) decides to go all in at an underground poker game. He's got a decent stake and hopes to parlay that into a big win at a local underground game run by Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, Shadow of the Vampire). Things don't go well, and Mike loses it all -- including his law school tuition. Fast forward some months and he's driving a truck and trying to be the good guy, both in school and with his girlfriend (Gretchen Moll, The Notorious Bettie Page). Then, his old friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of a prison. Worm can't believe that Mike has gone straight and left the game. It's especially troubling for Worm because he owes big money, and he can't hope to win enough to pay his debt without Mike's poker skills.
Rounders is a solid indie drama that arrived before its time. In 1998 no one seemed to care much about poker, so a poker-centric drama wasn't what audiences wanted. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and poker is all the rage, with tournaments being broadcast and commented upon with increasingly high ratings. If Rounders had appeared five years later it could have done $100 million at the box office without any trouble. Instead, the film has had to slowly gather a cult audience as fans discover this film's abundant charms. The most striking thing about Rounders is the fact that it's a sports drama that perfectly balances the sports and the drama. Viewers with no knowledge of or interest in poker can watch Rounders without feeling alienated, while those who love poker won't have to wait long between dramatic scenes for another exciting round of cards.
Although the plot is a beautiful little clockwork of dramatic writing, the film's true center is the performances. Matt Damon is charming and ruthless as the card player Mike, while Edward Norton is charming and odious as his unscrupulous comrade. Gretchen Moll plays the girlfriend with a lot of moxie, and Famke Janssen shines as her opposite. Smaller roles are filled with excellent performers like John Malkovich, John Turturro, and Martin Landau.
Rounders received an excellent DVD release a number of years ago, and this Blu-ray ports that disc to hi-def. The 2.35:1 AVC-encoded transfer is generally excellent. Detail is sharp, and black levels are especially good. Many of the film's scenes take place in darkened poker rooms, so it's nice to see lots of detail in the shadows. Grain is handled well, and very few compression or digital artifacts show up. The DTS-HD soundtrack is a bit of an overkill for this dialogue-driven drama, but it's easy to appreciate the clarity of this track. There is a bit of surround activity during some of the more intense scenes, and everything remains well balanced throughout.
The extras start with a pair of audio commentaries. The first is comprised of poker professionals, including Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. They sporadically discuss the playing in the game, but this should really be a selected scene commentary, as the group doesn't have enough to say to fill the two-hour running time. The other commentary is more effective, gathering John Dahl (director), David Levian (writer), Brian Koppelman (writer), and Edward Norton for a chatty track that bounces easily from jokey camaraderie to the trading of production info and inspirations for the film. Some of this information is repeated in a decent EPK-style making of. For the poker fans in the room, there's a Texas Hold-'Em tutorial, and some video tips on poker from some of the players featured in the commentary.
Rounders is an excellent drama with some compelling characters and excellent actors. Although the poker theme might turn off some viewers, this is really a film for anyone who appreciates a good story well told. This Blu-ray is a great way for newcomers to experience the films, and if this release can be found on sale, the upgrade in audiovisual quality will likely be worth it to fans of the film.
No matter how its hand is dealt, Rounders is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R