Matt Damon May Revive The Casino Film Genre

The year 2013 was a bad one for gambling films, as Runner Runner flopped mightily despite an active marketing campaign and a cast headlined by Justin Timberlake and a Ben Affleck at the peak of his career. The film attempted to combine the tense, mob-like atmosphere of older casino films with the sexy culture of modern Internet gaming, but it was ultimately let down by a lackluster script that never truly defined its direction and wound up falling back on clichés. The result, according to Box Office Mojo, was a domestic gross of a little over $19 million with a production budget of $30 million (though to be fair the film did profit with worldwide gross considered), not to mention a nearly universal panning by major film critics.

In some respects, this was just an ordinary flop. However, the issues with the Runner Runner screenplay, and the disaster of its reception, could also be taken as an indication that modern casino culture—which exists largely online and is more about the games than tuxedo-toting lead actors or the bright lights of Vegas—just doesn’t translate well to the screen. Consider what makes some of the classic poker and gambling films (Rounders, The Cincinnati Kid, The Hustler, and even aspects of Casino Royale) so engaging.

Often, it’s the banter between gambling competitors across tables as they stack their chips and make their bets. Real world poker and gaming scenarios actually provide screenwriters with a wonderful excuse to sit their opposing characters down for witty conversations, which in many other scenarios can come across as forced writing. It’s conceivable that the transition of casino gaming from back room tables and casino floors to computer screens has ruined this opportunity in a way. A setting that once begged for back-and-forth banter now consists of one-way interactions. This is one theory as to why Runner Runner altogether avoided becoming a legitimate casino film and instead went the route of an attempted crime thriller, forcing character interactions that just never felt genuine.

Despite these concerns, however, there was good news for the casino film genre in 2013 as well, with the trickle of rumours about a Rounders sequel becoming a virtual stream of excitement by December. And if there is a way to seamlessly introduce poker and casino films to modern times, it may well be through Rounders 2. This isn’t just because Rounders developed “cult classic” status after a relatively modest release in 1998 and is now regarded as arguably the best poker film of all time by many fans. Rather, it’s because Matt Damon, who starred in the film and will undoubtedly have sizable input in the sequel, appears to have a very firm grasp of just what’s made Rounders more and more popular over the years. And it’s very hard to imagine Damon’s insight not having an impact on the script.

Confirming his interest in making a sequel back in 2012, Damon is quoted by HitFlix as saying “when we did Rounders, it was this little niche kind of subculture that nobody knew about, and subsequent to that, after the World Poker Tour on TV, like showing the people’s whole cards, people got really into watching it.” Not only did people get into watching, but some of the early champions of televised poker even credited Rounders with sparking their involvement in competitive card playing! Chris Moneymaker is the best example. The 2003 World Series of Poker winner has said on multiple occasions, including an interview with Grantland contributor and Rounders co-writer Koppelman, that the film is what got him interested in
Texas Hold’Em poker to begin with.

Anyone old enough to remember the televised poker boom about a decade ago can understand Damon’s comments and the effect of the poker movement in generating an audience for Rounders over time. While poker has always been a popular game, the visibility of the World Poker Tour turned it from a basement and casino offering into a source of viewing entertainment. That, of course, makes the poker scenes in Rounders all the more intriguing when re-watching the film, and even makes the poker players’ banter in the screenplay easier for people to understand. Everything from the rules of the game to the general jargon of the players was, as Damon suggested, “niche” content for writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman to have included at the time, but is now relatable to a gigantic audience.

Still, this is all an explanation for how the Rounders idea and screenplay grew on the public over time. But does the history of the 1998 film provide any hint as to how Levien and Koppelman can help the sequel to avoid the fate of Runner Runner and successfully adapt to modern times? Damon touched on this a little bit as well in the HitFlix interview.

Elaborating on the poker movement that came after Rounders, Damon mentioned “all the stuff with the gaming, the online gaming… and the government shutting it down… there’s a lot of stuff that’s happened in that world… so what happened to my character post-that time period would probably be really interesting.” Keep in mind that this quote is from 2012, so it’s unlikely Damon was alluding to any particular plot spoilers or script details, but it certainly sounds as if the actor was implying that the natural path of his Rounders character would have been to online gaming. It’s there that the world of poker is larger than anyone could have imagined when Rounders was released in 1998.

And it’s understanding that path of an underground poker player to online gaming that will give Rounders 2 a place to start. On the other hand, Runner Runner launched into online gaming with no player history or poker background to explore. There’s truly a lot of subject matter for Levien and Koppelman to explore in their writing if, as Damon seems to suggest, they explore their characters’ transitions to the modern era of casino gaming.

In the United States, where Rounders 2 will presumably take place at least in part, online poker remains illegal in most states, which sets up ready-made conflict for Damon’s character and Co. Internationally, meanwhile, the online poker community knows no bounds and could conceivably cater quite nicely to the characters of Rounders if the writers are only able to realize the full range of online gaming. InterCasino, a popular platform for European players and one of the first to exist online, even has a section devoted specifically to poker and other table games, including Texas Hold’Em. In addition, there are high-stakes, real-money games of other poker varieties, which makes sense when you consider just how popular poker became following the early 2000s boom. It’s worth noting that a seasoned poker player in such an environment offers a great deal of opportunity for a screenwriter. That goes for whether the character is
struggling with the transition, hustling multiple games at once, or even engaging in tense chats with unseen, sinister online opponents. There’s a lot to work with here.

What the Rounders sequel will ultimately become, however, is still anyone’s guess. Damon’s 2012 comments are encouragingly aware of the task at hand—that being addressing his character’s movement into modern gambling. And with the old-school poker foundation they built with the original film, Levien and Koppelman (who according to Indystar are indeed taking on the sequel project) have a lot of different angles to play with in their writing. Here’s hoping they pull it off and succeed in ushering the casino film genre into the 2010s!

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