What makes this film interesting is the people who populate it. They're not really characters we haven't seen before, but the acting makes them seem unique and that's really the strength of this film. For those of you who are only familiar with Damon from his showboating role in GOOD WILL HUNTING you won't see much of a difference here. However, he still puts in a solid performance. He plays Mike McDermott, a law student putting himself through school with winnings from local poker games. Lest you think you can do this yourself, think again. The film makes a serious distinction between professional card players and everyone else and if it is only halfway accurate you should be very scared the next time you go to Vegas or Atlantic City. This is not just about playing cards, it's about playing people and these "rounders" are the best in the business.
Though he's normally a smart and straight player, he risks his entire bankroll ($30,000) on one hand against the owner of a local parlor named KGB (John Malkovich) in the hopes that he'll win and be able to go Vegas and play with the big boys. He loses and "decides" with the help of his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) to give up playing and concentrate on becoming a good lawyer and upstanding citizen. Working a night job and going to school just isn't the life for him. When his best friend Worm (Edward Norton) is released from prison, they begin rounding again, separating suckers from their cash. The only problem with this scheme is that Worm is unable to play without cheating. What he also conveniently forgets to tell Mike is that he's in debt to KGB for $15,000.
It's not until Worm runs up $7,000 in debt on Mike's tab that he finds out the truth about Worm's problem. In order to save his friend from a major beating, he puts his reputation and butt on the line. They have only 2 days to come up with the money and Mike has only one rule Worm doesn't play. He's going to separate the suckers from their cash the fairest way possible. Unfortunately for Mike, Worm just can't sit still. After he gets them violently thrown out of a card game for cheating losing all the money they'd built up, Worm splits town leaving Mike holding the bag. Getting a loan from his college professor, Mike faces off with KGB in an all or nothing game. If he wins, he walks away literally maybe with some extra cash. If he loses, well, he's Matt Damon and we all know he's not going to. Needless to say, he doesn't become a lawyer.
The funny thing about Damon's performance is that he makes this guy truly likeable. He should be a cocky, annoying son-of-a-bitch but I couldn't help but be impressed with his strength of character and his poker skills. This is just a guy who's able to read people better than anyone else. We all have "tells", things that betray our emotions, and he just uses them to win the hand. Besides, Norton is slimy enough for both of them. There has to be somebody the audience can root for and though Damon isn't a total scumbucket, he's no choir boy either. He still separates people from their cash, he just does it as honestly as he can. You'd never think watching people play poker would be so interesting.
Damon and Norton are flip sides of the same coin. What happened to one could easily have happened to the other, but for the grace of god. As they say time and again in this film, there's no such thing as luck. Martin Landau has the role of the film's conscience, which he thankfully plays with as much subtlety as the dialogue will allow. It gets a little annoying at times, but you've just got to love him anyway. All I have to say about Gretchen Mol is she needs to invest in more acting lessons. This role will do nothing for her future unless she wants to make a career out of playing the annoying, clingy girlfriend. I have to say I liked this film more than I thought I would, especially after hearing some other reviews. It's an interesting world they live in and I enjoyed spending time in it. I wouldn't rush out to see it, but if you get the chance it's worth the money.