Good Will Hunting may have catapulted Matt Damon through the flaming hoop of superstardom, but he's kept his pre-fame pledge to star in smaller cinematic ventures. In this case, "smaller" means John Dahl's Rounders, which jump-starts your curiosity with a big-money poker clash, before grinding entertainment value into the dirt with a tale that's listless, charmless, unrealistic and unintentionally hilarious.
Last Seduction director Dahl no doubt hoped to create a tale of friendship set against the backdrop of poker - The Colour Of Money with cards. Rounders is arrogantly indie, sneaking you into the basement world of the compulsive gambler and sitting you down at the table. In Teddy KGB's colour-drained gambling den, the ABCs of the game are explained by Damon's cool-headed voice-over. Poker is good. Poker is life. Poker is a drug. Card players, it seems, need the rush of a flush in the same way an alcoholic needs a can of Special Brew.
While Rounders can't be faulted on its poker knowledge, the rest of the movie struggles to match this professionalism. The first half-hour is smoothly atmospheric: Dahl's night-time camerawork mimics the seedy, washed-out palette of the basement card-joints, all curling wisps of smoke and long shadows. But you soon realise he's more concerned with the destructive Damon/Norton friendshipthan the game itself. Poker is relegated to the background, and the script reveals only what you need to know to get by, hoping that regular rushes of jargon ("white meat" means profit, "play on your belly" means no cheating) will create a suitable mood.
This would be forgivable if the relationship between the central duo was sufficiently interesting and tense. But it's stiff and structured, testing your patience from the start. McDermott's a skill-player, Worm's an obsessive cheat and trickster, and any believability is slowly eroded as Damon's character sticks by his buddy, even though Worm steals $8,000 from him, lies, and gets the pair beaten up by a gang of off-duty cops. The final straw comes when McDermott offers to take responsibility for Worm's $15,000 debt (non-payment of which will get him killed). Yes, they're close pals, but this gesture is plainly ridiculous.
The longer Rounders goes on, the less you care about its characters. Janssen (sexy club hostess), Mol (McDermott's card-hating girlfriend) and Landau (kind-hearted law professor) can do little with their wafer-thin bit-parts. Only John Turturro manages to convince, carving out a cameo as a drawling career player.
But what single-handedly destroys Rounders is John Malkovich's farcical performance as mobster Teddy KGB. His word-mangling, cookie-cracking Russian strips the final scene of all suspense and seriousness. If you insist on going to see this over-stylised tripe, the inadvertently funny Malkovich is the only reason worth staying to the end. You won't believe how he's been allowed to get away with such a hammy, panto-style performance.
A traditional sports movie which unwisely makes heroes out of compulsive gamblers, ignores the mechanics of poker (the interesting bit), and is spectacularly ruined by Malkovich's laughable Russian. It's a mess.