No under-thirty actor today holds a better career hand than Matt Damon. And that includes a certain Titanic star, who's still on R & R while Damon is out hustling roles. Following the box-office and Oscar success of Good Will Hunting (an acting nomination and a win for the script he wrote with co-star, friend and fellow South Boston townie Ben Affleck), Damon, 27, scored the title role in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan; nabbed the lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient); re-teamed with Affleck in Dogma for Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy); and signed for the film of Cormac McCarthy's best seller All the Pretty Horses when the aforementioned Leo turned it down.
Now the question is: How well will Damon play his cards? Rounders, set in the underground poker clubs of New York and the actor's first starring role since Will Hunting, suggests that Damon is a winner. As Mike McDermott, a law student who blows $30,000 in tuition on a poker game with mad Russian Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) and then futilely vows to kick the habit, Damon shows he knows how to play a camera and an audience. Rounders — slang for players who know all the angles — is stylish entertainment and smartass fun when director John Dahl (The Last Seduction) plays his strong suit (a gifted cast) instead of his weakest (a derivative plot). Like 1965's The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders subs poker aces for the pool sharks of The Hustler, the 1961 hit with Paul Newman. Besides The Hustler, screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien — childhood pals, like Damon and Affleck — also lift without shame from Good Will Hunting.
Get this: Will is a math prodigy; Mike excels at poker — he can walk into a game and read the hands blind. Will's best friend (Affleck) is a blue-collar townie with reduced options; Mike's is Worm (Edward Norton), an ex-con whose knack for cheating reduces his options for staying alive. Will's mentor is a psychology professor (Robin Williams); Mike's is Abe Petrovsky (a very fine Martin Landau), a law professor who gave up the Talmud for the legal system because he "finds God" in the law. Will's guide in the game is another prodigy (Stellan Skarsgsrd); Mike's is Joey Knish (John Turturro), a rounder since he was nineteen. Will's lover is a college coed (Minnie Driver); Mike's is Jo (the underused Gretchen Mol), a pretty nag from law school who wants Mike to transfer his poker skills to court ("the way you calculate odds on the spot; the way you read people").
It's Worm who understands that no babe can long deter the great Mike McD from poker, especially in a can't-lose setup with trust-fund preppies in the burbs. "It's all-the-way nice," says Worm. The same goes for Norton's riveting performance as a ratty charmer whose lack of judgment gets him and Mike kicked shitless in a poker game with cops. Worm is sure that Mike will join him for a big score in Atlantic City: "Your favorite actor is Clint Eastwood, man — he always doubles back for a friend."
Norton has the advantage over Damon in that Norton only has to act; Damon, who had already proved himself an able actor in the 1996 supporting role of a junkie soldier in Courage Under Fire, must also supply the star glimmer that can win the low-budget Rounders a pot of box-office gold. To that end, French camera ace Jean-Yves Escoffier photographs Damon so the glow from his milewide smile (Tom Cruise, take note) is enough to light the dingiest poker den. Great pains are taken to show that Mike wants to play straight and fulfill his dream of victory at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. If Mike is an addict, then Rounders is pro-addiction. Dahl is no joker; he knows how to keep a key card from going cold. Don't expect a gritty, art-house item about a loser who ends up humping crappy jobs on graveyard shifts to forget he came up short. Rounders is a crowd pleaser about an underdog who "finds God" in the cards.
In short, the movie stacks the deck in favor of Mike. Women lust for him — leggy Famke Janssen appears as another irrelevant love interest. Men envy his courage, which makes the outcome of Mike's return match with Teddy KGB a foregone conclusion. 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.
Says Mike, "If you play poker for a living, it's like any job — you grind it out." The same goes for most movies; Rounders stakes audiences to a lively game, but with too many hedged bets. Mike also warns, "If you're too careful, your whole life can become a fucking grind." Damon finds himself at a similar crossroads. He can take the safe bet and use his boyish smile as a bluff. But that's for suckers. In fighting to show the psychological complexities in Mike that the script ignores, Damon plays it like a rounder instead of a grinder. This kid still has surprises up his sleeve.