Once upon a time, a movie like "Rounders" wouldn't have been the anomaly it is today. Hard as it is to remember, serious dramas boasting bravura turns by sought-after leading men were formerly the staff of life to any respectable studio. Now, they're entertaining but curious oddities, and their fate in the marketplace is a simple game of chance, no matter how bankable their stars may seem.
Into the crapshoot walks Matt Damon, playing inveterate gambler Mike McDermott with all of the professional honesty he can bring to the table. McDermott is a choice role: He's a poker whiz trying to resist the lure of the easy mark in favor of the straight life of a law student. Plenty of support is forthcoming from Mike's long-suffering girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol), who keeps believing in his potential for greatness despite his distracting habit of occasionally losing all of their money. His professor (Martin Landau) also sees a bright future for Mike if he can transfer his hard-earned wisdom about human nature to the courtroom. The seeds of McDermott's failure, however, are sown not from within but without, as his recently paroled poker buddy Worm (Edward Norton) reemerges in his life and gradually draws him back into the circle of high stakes and low-lifes he's so desperately sought to avoid.
Damon is so utterly convincing that it's easy to forget how rote the storyline actually is. "Rounders" is at its core the same lesson in the artistry of the hustle that we've previously learned from "The Color of Money," "The Grifters" and any number of like-minded, scholarly inquiries into the seedy. The film's climax, which revolves around a winner-take-all card-playing session, suffers from an enforced drama that's out of line with the rest of the picture's essential, humble scale. Real-life scam artists rarely enjoy such defining moments; instead, they follow the trajectory of Mickey Rourke's and Eric Roberts' characters in "The Pope of Greenwich Village," stumbling from one con to the next, falling farther back as they struggle to come out ahead.
There's nothing faltering, however, about Damon's performance. Handily outdistancing the accomplishments all of his contemporaries in the heartthrob-du-jour set, he strikes not one false note in the entire time he's on the screen. Method be damned; he leaves the look-at-me-I'm-ACTING school of presentation to other, less talented junior thespians. Even when he's sharing scenes with Landau, John Turturro, John Malkovich or any of the other pedigreed veterans in the cast, it's Damon who you can't stop watching. He takes every wild card director John Dahl can throw at him and still comes out holding the winning hand.