The game of Poker and the casino venue have been utilised countless times by filmmakers to tell dramatic and exciting stories. Whether comedies, gangster pictures, thrillers or westerns, depictions of poker games and the casino milieu allow for tense encounters and potential riches even after nerves are shredded. Only absolute masters keep their cool.
Poker, especially, has become something of a celebrity sport and a recent documentary explored the game and its allure All In: The Poker Movie. Here’s five movies set in the world of casinos and high stake games.
Rounders (1998, dir: John Dahl)
Rounders is a 1998 drama directed by John Dahl and stars poker enthusiast Matt Damon and Edward Norton. Both actors participated in a Texas Hold ‘Em championship as research for the film. The story is quite melodramatic as it sees a former gambling addict return to the tables when his best bud (Worm, played Norton) owes gangsters a lot of money. The baddie is played by John Malkovich and named Teddy KGB. Malkovich hams it up a treat in this forgotten late ’90s drama which is mostly remembered for Malkatraz donning a tracksuit and speaking with a terrible Russian accent. Rounders’ attention to detail regarding poker games saw custom cards and chips appear. For example, Chesterfield Club chips were made by American Standard Molding (ASM) for the games that take place with Teddy KGB.
Casino (dir: Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s 1995 classic was set away far from the mean streets of NYC and took in the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, shooting on location on real casino floors for a majority of scenes. The house always wins here as mobsters rule the roost and don’t want their money disappearing too often. Robert De Niro is superb as Ace Rothstein, the man who sees his neon-lit kingdom come crashing down because of a crazy pal (played by Joe Pesci, who else?). Another piece of trivia relating to the game and Nevada state rules, the technique known as ‘spooking’ is considered legal because it really comes down to sloppy dealers who aren’t on the ball. Of course Ace takes a different attitude to cheating and smashes up one guy’s hand with a hammer. Never cheat.
The Grand (Zak Penn)
Zak Penn’s poker story takes the mockumentary route and enjoys an eclectic cast including a rare-ish screen appearance from Werner Herzog, playing a character named The German. Woody Harrelson, Jason Alexander, Cheryl Hines (another real life poker enthusiast) and Ray Romano all appear in this film and the poker tournament was for real with the actors inserted into the scenario. Also, Penn didn’t use a script for the movie and had his cast improvise. In the film Herzog’s character sacrifices animals because he believes it brings luck.
Snake Eyes (dir: Brian De Palma)
This 1998 drama starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Brian De Palma takes the casino setting (shot in Atlantic City) and centres the story around a boxing match and a corrupt navy commander (Gary Sinise) attempting a spot of terrorism. The scenario is as lively as the setting and Cage is on fire and on hammy form as corrupt cop Rick Santoro. The original ending for Snake Eyes saw a tidal wave come crashing through the casino and sweeping everybody in the mayhem. It was cut from the film even though Industrial Light and Magic created the sequence.
Maverick (dir: Richard Donner)
Mel Gibson’s 1994 blockbuster, Maverick, is based on a hit 1960s television show starring James Garner as a charming card sharp. Maverick needs $25,000 to enter a poker tournament and cannot always talk his way out of a situation, even though he tries. The film is a fond homage to the TV series and western genre and during the poker tournament a handful of actors, who appeared in westerns down the years, appear such as Denver Pyle from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, William Smith from Laredo, Doug McClure from The Virginian, Henry Darrow from The High Chaparral and Robert Fuller from Wagon Train. Maverick is a very charming film with Gibson and his co-stars Jodie Foster and James Garner (the original Maverick) all play well off each other.