August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

STARRING Matt DAMON, Edward NORTON, Martin LANDAU, John TURTURRO, John MALKOVICH, Famke JANSSEN, Gretchen MOL

DIRECTED BY John DAHL

Truth. Sin. Redemption. Matt Damon.

Not the kinds of things you expect to find at a poker game — except maybe the sin part. But in the gambling world created by Rounders, the only immoral choice is not to step up to the card table.

Damon, in his first leading role since playing a math genius in Good Will Hunting, is Mike, a poker genius putting himself through law school on his winnings. After losing his tuition in one hand, he quits the game — until his best friend, Worm (Norton), gets out of prison and lures Mike back in. Malkovich plays a Russian poker-club owner, Turturro a high-stakes gambler, Landau an understanding judge, and Mol — in a role originally offered to Neve Campbell — the sensitive girlfriend none too happy about Mike’s relapse.

Norton says that he was drawn to his character because ”he’s like Bugs Bunny dressed up as Keith Richards. He’s the renegade philosopher, always two steps ahead of a whupping but laughing as he goes. He’s the kind of guy you always want to know is out there.” Screenwriter Brian Koppelman, who penned the script with his childhood best friend David Levien, got the idea for Rounders after playing in an underground New York game (”I can’t tell you where or I’d be killed,” he says, only half jokingly). He left the game down $750, but up a screenplay idea: ”I was totally fascinated with the way people looked and spoke and acted.”

Therein lies the challenge: With such phrases as ”carpet joint” and ”finger up your spine,” the actors are occasionally communicating only to aficionados, something Dahl (The Last Seduction) doesn’t see as a negative. ”I like the fact that when you read Shakespeare, you don’t understand every word, and in fact it’s very confusing,” he says. ”But when you see a really good actor playing with the right intention, it becomes fascinating.” (Sept. 11)

THE LOWDOWN Box office is an even tougher game than poker — but we think they’re holding a pretty strong hand.

type
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mpaa
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director
John Dahl
Cast
Melina Kanakaredes,
Martin Landau,
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