Gambling is always a popular film subject because of the natural tension and the potential for drama. From the glamour of high roller tables at Vegas casinos to the seedy underworld of illegal gambling operations, the locations of gambling movies are also magnets for intriguing minor characters. The games themselves are sources of suspense and excitement.
Roulette tends to not be the primary focus of movies but will often feature to set a scene or build a character – such as the roulette scene in Casablanca (1942). The audience is able to see that Rick’s coldness is a facade when he rigs a roulette wheel so that a young couple can win enough to escape the country.
Blackjack is one of the most popular film table games. It’s a fairly simple game but knowing when to hit or stand can take time to learn. One of the reasons why it’s such a popular game in the movies is because counting cards makes it possible to skew the odds in the players’ favour, much to the dismay of casino operators. The Card Counter (2022), 21 (2008), Rain Man (1988) and even The Hangover (2009) all portray card counting in blackjack.
The king of all cinematic gambling games, however, is poker. Poker has all of the essential elements to make a good film. It’s competitive and the stakes can be as high or low as the plot requires. It’s a game that blends luck and skill, so the end result is never certain. In addition, poker is played by people from around the world and from all classes and backgrounds.
Rounders stars Matt Damon as Mike McDermott, a law student who has given up poker despite being an expert player. A big loss has pushed him away from the tables and back into class. However, when a poker cheat friend (played by Edward Norton) needs help securing $25,000 to save him from a loan shark, McDermott has to step in to help.
It’s an enjoyable film and the cast all turn in quality performances. Matt Damon’s character bears a few too many similarities to his character in Good Will Hunting, which ultimately feels a bit limiting. We know he can do more, so it’s frustrating to see him recast in the same mold. Edward Norton excels in his role as the friend who can’t seem to go straight to save his life. We see shades of the star he was growing into here and it is enjoyable to witness.
One of the major issues with gambling films is that they do essentially have to follow a rough format. It’s almost impossible to imagine a gambling movie that doesn’t have a climactic final hand. Whether the main character wins or loses doesn’t ultimately matter – having the film end with one last high-stakes hand has to happen. While this of course is what the film is building to, and is enjoyable in the moment, it removes the option of any real suspense or innovation.
Ultimately, Rounders is a solid movie about poker and it does a good job of showing how addictive the highs of winning can be. What the film should be remembered for, however, is how it contributed to the sparking of the poker zeitgeist.
Poker had been a niche game until the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it exploded in popularity. Suddenly, it seemed like poker was everywhere – on TV, in movies, people even began playing online – which was a shocking development at the time.
This poker craze culminated in the Hollywood poker scandal. Some of the biggest names in the entertainment world got sucked into the poker underworld, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire and yes – even Matt Damon. The high-stakes games that these high rollers organised and attended were ultimately illegal and the entire saga was recently depicted in the film Molly’s Game (2017).
The legal trouble that these celebrities found themselves in and the tabloid hysteria that followed cooled the obsession with poker somewhat. Playing poker at casinos or online remains a very popular hobby but the media has moved on to other subjects.
As a final note, we can’t talk about Rounders without talking about John Malkovich’s absolutely ridiculous accent as Teddy KGB. To call it a Russian accent is a bit unfair – it is very much Malkovich’s own creation. It frequently tops lists of the worst film accents of all time and once you’ve heard it, the reason why is obvious.