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An air of sobriety hangs over Rounders, as if director John Dahl had resolved to kick his giggly neo-noir habit and go straight, but without abandoning his usual materials. Dahl's films - elegant, transgressive, smart - are built around likable losers, ripe for the plucking by small-town thugs, crooked cops and predatory sexpots in basic black. Though the big-city master poker player who's the subject of Dahl's new movie rarely loses at cards (in poker circles a rounder is defined as "the absolute opposite of a sucker"), he too is at the mercy of forces he can't control.
Rounders begins where most stories about addiction end - with a fallen hero rising, after a fashion, to the occasion of a normal life. Unlike the amiable shlubs in Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, who can't even get a grip on breaking the law, former gambler-turned-law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) has a legit world cooking along, built on the copious promises of renunciation he's made to Jo (Gretchen Mol), his long-suffering girlfriend and classmate. Mike is a loyal, decent guy with the addict's gift for self-deception, and when he goes - as go he must, or there's no movie - off the rails, it's less plunge than fitful slippage. For the young gambler has remained in touch with his old associates: his poker mentor, Knish (John Turturro, in a fine, disciplined performance); KGB, an Oreo-nibbling Russian poker champion, played with his usual lazy insidiousness by John Malkovich, munching on Slavic syllables as though filling in the gaps on a language-lesson tape ("Zo, you hev my mah-ni?"); and Petra (the fashionably cadaverous Famke Janssen, in a weak distillation of the raven-haired temptresses favored by Dahl), who runs the club where the regulars gather to play.
Loyalty is precisely Mike's undoing, along with a knightly penchant for bailing out those even farther gone than himself. In the course of trying to save the hide of his old friend Worm (Edward Norton, ordinarily very much his own stylist, but here doing a half-cocked Dustin Hoffman), a loose-cannon card sharper with an instinct for disaster, Mike brings himself to the brink of ruin. Unlike Worm, who plays - and cheats - to win, Mike loves the game itself, not so much for the spoils as for the art of psyching out the competition. A capable mid-level actor in the cheerily unchallenging manner of Tom Cruise, Damon also sports the requisite baby face - which, if he's not careful, will becalm him in the very mega-stardom that allows Cruise to coast on charm unless otherwise directed. In any event, Damon is a pallid, market-driven, choice to portray a risk-taker who lives for thrills.
Mike McDermott is a gambler not simply by profession, but by his very nature. Welcome, or welcome back, to the determinism pioneered in Mike Figgis' absurd Leaving Las Vegas, a movie that read nobility into its alcoholic anti-hero's ecstatic - and, Figgis would persuade us, inevitable - slide into self-annihilation. Figgis' swaggering exhibitionism is not for Dahl, a cooler head by far whose preferred mode is woozy irony with a twist of ghoulish. But he and screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien seem equally entranced by the premise that we must keep faith with the selves that God or the gene pool have hard-wired into us. In Rounders, Mike's problem isn't that he can't make it in the straight world, but that he has no passion, no vocation for that world. It falls to poor Martin Landau - awkward in strange hair as Professor Petrovsky, Mike's law-school mentor - to spell things out with a cautionary parable from his own youth. And nothing strangles a drama more swiftly than a long topic sentence containing an object lesson.
More the working out of an idea than a story with a life of its own, Rounders chugs from one scene to the next like an overly responsible documentary. Like all Dahl's work, the movie is gorgeous, glittering with the monochromatic beauty of noir transposed into the key of yellow. (The cinematographer is Jean-Yves Escoffier, who also shot Good Will Hunting.) Set in New York's underground poker warrens, the movie is washed with a radiant seediness, from the metallic chrome of the rain-soaked exteriors to shifting shades of amber and tarnished gold for interior scenes, splashed with the baroque high color of the neatly stacked chips that suck Mike back into the game - a game he loves enough to lie repeatedly to the woman he loves, and to himself.
Rounders is an honorable effort at departure for Dahl, who rightly sees that he can mine neo-noir - a parasitical meta-genre that preys on its sources without extending them - only so often without his voice growing tinny. In the end, Dahl strays less from his roots than he imagines, for Mike's journey to self-discovery rehashes the romantic fatalism of classic film noir minus the neo and perked with a "be all you can be" face-lift. Yet the movie's tone is hushed enough, its values decent enough, to eviscerate the goofy vigor that marked Dahl's earlier work. Decency's a fine sentiment in life, but in movies it's enough to cripple the genre that's as surely in John Dahl's blood as poker is in Mike's.
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