On this day 25 years ago, Rounders hit movie theaters all over the United States. In the moment and in retrospect, the cast was absolutely stacked. Matt Damon, in the afterglow of the massive success and critical acclaim of Good Will Hunting, in a starring role. He was joined by Edward Norton, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Gretchen Mol, and Martin Landau, among others.
Unsurprisingly, the distribution and promotion for a movie with a list of actors that deep would be massive, and on opening weekend Rounders hit No. 1 at the box office. The top 10 that week was filled with heavyweights; There’s Something About Mary at No. 2, Blade at No. 3, and Saving Private Ryan at No. 4. Armageddon, which would be the most financially successful movie of the bunch, was at No. 9.
Within a week, everything about Rounders’ theatrical run went sideways. It slipped to No. 4, as Rush Hour debuted and added another blockbuster to the mix. By early November, Rounders was out of movie theaters entirely and ended 1998 as the 79th-highest grossing film of the year. The film might have been relegated to an afterthought of cinema, had it not been for some excellent timing for a brand new home movie format: the DVD.
The DVD format debuted in the United States in early 1997, and over the next few years DVD sales and rentals helped breathe life into films that didn’t catch on in movie theaters. Movies like The Big Lebowski, and, as it turns out, Rounders. By word of mouth and ease of accessibility, Rounders firmly became entrenched as a cult classic, and only more so as poker exploded in popularity in the early 2000s.
Looking back at its origins, you might wonder why Rounders fared so poorly in movie theaters before later finding its footing on smaller screens. You might think that the only way a movie that chock full of stars could fall so flat would be getting panned by critics. And while some opinions at the time were negative, there were also quite a few glowing reviews from the biggest movie buffs of the time.
As we dig into the reviews for Rounders at the time of its release to get a sense of those sentiments, it’s only natural to start with the biggest names in the history of that industry – Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert – who each reviewed the film individually in their respective Chicago newspapers and together on their world-famous TV show.
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“Rounders” cheerfully buys into compulsive gambling. The hero gambles away his tuition money, his girlfriend, his law degree and nearly his life, and at the end he’s still a happy gambler. If this movie were about alcoholism, the hero would regain consciousness after the DTs and order another double. Most gambling movies are dire warnings; this one is a recruiting poster.
Reading that opening paragraph, it would be fair to think Ebert was getting set to pan the movie. But you’d be wrong. Ebert gave Rounders three out of four stars – good enough for his signature “thumbs up” recommendation. In his review, Ebert called himself a “mediocre poker player who hits the poker room at the Mirage” who had read several books on the World Series of Poker, making him part of the target audience that this film eventually found.
Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
Matt Damon, fresh from his roles as Will Hunting and Pvt. Ryan, marks himself as a versatile acting talent – and not just a hunk – playing a very good poker player trying to use his skill to put himself through law school. His dream is to raise a big enough stake in local games to allow him to try to make a really big score in Las Vegas, the poker capital of the world.
Siskel also gave Rounders three stars, while noting Rounders “is anything more than a couple of very good character studies, which is no small achievement.” Interestingly enough, Siskel also identified himself as a poker player, specializing in Texas Hold’em, and complimented the poker play and strategy in the film. It’s easy to wonder how fun and competitive a local Chicago home game featuring Siskel and Ebert might have played out.
Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times
Damon’s presence is one of several things “Rounders” (the name is poker slang for a smart professional player) has going for it, including having another fine actor, co-star Edward Norton, to work off of. The subculture of high-stakes poker is involving and director John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction”) is a celebrated creator of dark and ominous moods. But like a poker hand that looks promising but doesn’t quite play out, “Rounders” is unable to do justice to its potential. Off and on involving, the film’s failure to fully capitalize on its assets does not have a convenient villain. Instead, it’s the combination of several factors going more wrong than right that proves too much for it to overcome.
Rounders’ reviews weren’t all sunshine, by any means. Turan, seemingly with an air of disappointment, points to all of the assets the film has going in its favor and bemoans Rounders falling short despite everything it has going in its favor. He compliments the relationship between Mike and Worm, but Turan ultimately comes to the conclusion that anyone who lacks a deep knowledge of poker and its minutiae can get lost during Rounders’ big moments.
Janet Maslin, New York Times
Though John Dahl’s ”Rounders” finally adds up to less than meets the eye, what does meet the eye (and ear) is mischievously entertaining. Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s brand of lowlife and aided by a splendid rogues’ gallery of a cast, the director of ”The Last Seduction” takes his audience behind closed doors and into the world of high-stakes poker, a demimonde captured with abundant local color. With settings that range from an Elks hall in Binghamton to a yuppie cigar bar to Russian Turkish Baths, Mr. Dahl’s film has character in oversupply even if its actual characters are sometimes thin. Poker fever makes up for whatever the story lacks in everyday emotions.
Most of the reviews that took shots at Rounders had plenty of compliments to pay along the way. Janet Maslin’s take on the film paid homage to John Turturro and John Malkovich for their performances, along with the kind words she had for all of the backdrops the audience got to see along the way. Among her primary complaints, however, was that screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman had a “keener ear for gambling jargon than story trajectory.”
Steve Persall, Tampa Bay Times
Viewers won’t always be able to read the actors’ faces, or know exactly what cards they’re holding. We learn just enough to calculate the possibilities. That’s an exciting proposition for attentive moviegoers and a creative gamble for any filmmaker. Dahl rarely tips his hand, never underestimates his opponents in the theater seats, and cashes in with style to burn.
One of the most glowing reviews of all came from Steve Persall of the Tampa Bay Times, who rated the film with an “A” grade and paid compliments from top to bottom to writers Levien and Koppelman, director John Dahl, the cast, the musical score, and the cinematography. His final line in the review sums up his feelings on Rounders well: “There’s something in almost every scene to make a movie lover’s heart skip, as if we drew an inside straight on the last card. Dahl deals it down and dirty.”
The movie critics were scattered all over the spectrum in their opinions. Adam Smith of Empire Magazine had it a 2/5, Mick LaSalle of SFGate called it mediocre and Paul Tatara from CNN dipped into the poker glossary by stating Rounders had nothing up its sleeve. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post was kinder, stating Rounders’ allure is in the cards. A glimpse at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic point out an even deeper list of polarized opinions on the film, which lines up with where Rounders ultimately landed – a cult classic that’s deeply adored by those drawn in by the game of poker.