A poker playing law student teams up with his buddy, a poker playing ex con, and try to win some serious cash. When the ex-con's cheating lands them with a serious cash flow problem, they must win one last game with the big guys - the Russian mob.
Those happily expecting a big screen account of the peculiar baseball-lite played in primary schools across the country are, sadly, in for something of a disappointment. Rounders is in fact a New York-set gambling drama with the man of the moment Matt Damon hunting audience's post-Good Will Hunting good will and delivering a distinctly below par effort.
Damon neatly synthesises his last two roles as a wrong-side-of-the-tracks (Good Will Hunting) inexperienced law student (The Rainmaker) Mike McDermott, who also happens to be a poker "genius" (oh, more GWH). Norton is his best bud (GWH again but let's stop this now) Worm who, on being released from prison, tempts his friend back to the poker tables in an attempt to pay off his $25,000 gambling debt.
While McDermott is a "rounder" (a skilled player who plays straight), Worm is a "mechanic" (a cheat) who constantly screws up their attempts to raise the cash and earns them various vicious beatings. Finally, time runs out and McDermott has just eight hours to raise the necessary in a frenzied series of games culminating in a match against Russian mobster Teddy KGB (Malkovich).
Rounders' main problem, surprisingly enough, is Damon whose natural screen charm, while enjoyable enough, often undercuts the tension and drama. The fast becoming trademark toothy grin (which should have Tom Cruise looking to his laurels) coupled with endearing little-boy-lost glances to camera may well establish him in many quarters as the male eye-candy of the year, but unfortunately they tend to smash the credibility of the character. Damon looks much more like a middle-class Harvard educated accountant (or actor) than a blue-collar card sharp made good.
Much more impressive is Norton - rapidly becoming the young character actor to watch - as the hyperactive, dangerously anarchic and very funny Worm ("Relaxation therapist, please," he corrects McDermott when he asks how much a hooker cost). Director Dahl over-pads and slips in the odd howling cliche (Martin Landau as the kindly prof who delivers the requisite follow-your-heart spiels is one such) and fails to curb Malkovich's hysterical accent ("Geeef thiys meen hiys moneeey!") leaving Rounders resembling a pair of deuces more than a royal flush.
Damon does not quite cut the mustard, relying on his boyish charm too much and undercutting the tension. Not a full house by any means.