By Mike D'Angelo
February 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

There’s a moment late in Rounders, John Dahl’s enjoyably hokey poker flick, that seems to be the movie’s climax, then unexpectedly turns out not to be. It finds young, desperate gambler Mike McDermott (Matt Damon, once again playing the smartest guy in the room) sitting across the table from arrogant Russian mobster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, leaning on his Boris Badenov accent as if it were a car horn). This is the showdown the movie has been building toward, and it appears to culminate when Mike spots KGB’s ”tell” — an unconscious habit that inadvertently announces the strength of his hand. And what does our hero do with this valuable information? He immediately lets KGB know that he knows, only to be called ”Meester Sonuvabeetch” for his trouble.

Why let the cat out of the bag? ”Usually,” Mike says in voice-over, ”I’d’ve let him go on…till he was dead broke. But I don’t have that kinda time.” Come again? Too rushed to capitalize on an opponent’s weakness? Narrators aren’t always reliable, and Mike’s motives are more complex than he lets on: He’s another in a recent spate of film competitors more concerned with integrity than with coming out ahead. Sure, they want to win — but on their own strict terms.

It wasn’t always so. Once, in a Hollywood less obsessed with a protagonist’s likability, even sports dramas could pack a pessimistic wallop. Look at the driven loser Paul Newman plays in 1961’s poolhall saga The Hustler — a man so intent on beating Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) that he’s willing to trade his fragile sweetheart (Piper Laurie) for an opportunity. Try to imagine a contemporary picture in which the ingenue is ultimately driven to suicide by our hero’s ambition. Think of the comment cards at the test screenings.

These days, collateral damage is kept light, as in Tin Cup, Ron Shelton’s goofily laid-back paean to immaturity. Kevin Costner is Roy McAvoy, a washed-up golf pro more interested in sinking impossible shots than in making par — sort of an endearing cross between Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh from Shelton’s earlier (and equally carefree) Bull Durham. Mere strokes away from winning the U.S. Open, and facing a treacherous water hazard, McAvoy stubbornly, and needlessly, attempts to make it onto the green in a single powerhouse stroke…and dumps his ball into the drink. Then he tries again. And again. And again. With the twelfth stroke, he pulls off a miraculous hole in one, but by that point, any hope of winning the tournament is a waterlogged memory. It’s simultaneously thrilling and excruciating, and Costner’s wry, self-effacing, intensely charismatic performance somehow makes sheer bullheadedness seem sexy.

Without Limits, true to its title, gives us bullheadedness to spare. Robert Towne conceives the tragically brief life of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) as a battle of wills between the idealistic athlete and his pragmatic coach, Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland, superlative in a rare turn as a mensch). Pre is a gifted runner, but Bowerman is convinced that the middle-distance man’s compulsion to run at full speed wears him out before the crucial final lap. ”Running any other way is just plain chickens—,” Pre insists. ”What else do you call layin’ back for two and a half miles and then stealin’ a race in the last 200 yards?” ”Winning!” explodes an incredulous Bowerman.

Rounders may be a more traditionally upbeat tale of obstacles overcome, but it’s guided by the same winning-isn’t-everything mentality. The movie takes great pains to contrast Mike with his conniving, unscrupulous pal Worm (the astonishingly chameleonic Edward Norton), who’s constantly dealing from the bottom of the deck. Had Rounders been made 35 years ago, it would have been Worm’s story, and there’s little doubt that he would have gouged Teddy KGB as soon as he detected his tell (or, more likely, somehow failed in the attempt). Instead, we have talented-but-scrupulous Mike, who opts to level the playing field. In the ’90s, Russian-inflected assertions aside, your average leading man simply isn’t allowed to be a sonuvabeetch. Rounders: B-
Hustler: A- Cup: B+ Without Limits: B-