A little drunk on its own arcane exotica as a gambling movie, Rounders is a film that takes us inside a world of high-stakes card players but falls short on such essentials as character development, relationships, that sort of thing. Still, it is a real curiosity, written by a couple of guys (David Levien and Brian Koppelman) who appear to know something about the dark underbelly of card hustling for fun and profit. Matt Damon stars as a reluctant law student who can't put aside his subterranean career of playing poker and blackjack for big money. After he loses his post-grad nest egg to a weird Russian kingpin (John Malkovich)--and also loses his disgusted girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) in the process--Damon's character turns to an unreliable old buddy (Edward Norton) for a dangerous game of sharking wherever there happens to be a game underway: frat boys, cops, bad dudes, you name it. Norton appears to be living out every young actor's fantasy of re-creating Robert De Niro's prototypical head case in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, and while his performance is burdened by obvious quotation marks, his estimable talent still shines through. Damon's charm and intelligence bring some oomph to the curiously flat proceedings, and while his hushed, soul-bearing scenes with Martin Landau (as a law professor who takes a shine to the kid) seem gratuitous, they're still nice to watch. Behind all this is director John Dahl (Red Rock West), who is not exactly at the top of his game here but who brings his distinctive toughness to the crime-noir tone. --Tom Keogh
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