Perhaps no filmmaker has done as much as John Dahl to make film noir seem relevant in the '90s. While most modern noirs serve as stylishly empty showcases for glib writing, campy acting, and familiar production design, Dahl's films (Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) embody many of the genre's strengths—toughness, wit, a despairing familiarity with human duplicity—without being overly derivative of the genre's golden age. Dahl stumbled a bit with Unforgettable, but he makes a solid, if slightly disappointing, comeback with Rounders, a film with the texture of a film noir and the plot of a gritty '30s melodrama. In an inversion of his much-heralded role in Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon here plays a hotshot law student who leads a secret life as a brilliant low-life poker hustler. After losing his life savings in a high-stakes match with an eccentric Russian mobster (John Malkovich), Damon vows to give up gambling for good, but he's pulled back into the life by the reappearance of a high-school friend (Edward Norton) who shares with him a prodigious card-sharking talent and a massive self-destructive streak. Rounders is surprisingly straightforward; basically everyone in the film is exactly what he or she seems to be. Deprived of the back-stabbing and complicated machinations of noir, Dahl is more reliant than ever on the strength of his actors and the sturdiness of the script. Luckily, the acting is remarkably strong, with Damon leading an ace cast of character actors, including a hammy Malkovich, a slightly less hammy Martin Landau, and a wonderfully understated John Turturro. Norton gives yet another excellent, chameleon-like performance, but the film never quite figures out what to do with his character. The film's ending is also a bit of an anti-climax, and a pair of sub-plots—one involving Damon and law professor Landau, another involving Damon and wan love interest Gretchen Mol—go nowhere. But Rounders is such a smart, tough little film that its strengths override its fairly serious weaknesses.
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