The Critics: Cinema: The Matt Damon backlash starts here

Rounders (15) Ronin (15) The Eel (18) Les Miserables (12) Dead Man's Curve (18) The Fountainhead (PG)
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The Independent Culture
If you're someone who knows what it is to have a "finger up your spine" in a "goulash joint", then Rounders, John Dahl's new thriller, is clearly a film for you. But if you're like me, and the nearest you get to high-voltage card-sharping is playing whist with your gran on Boxing Day, then large passages of the movie might as well be in Klingon.

The four pages of technical glossary in the press release reveal that a "rounder" is "a player who knows all the angles, and earns his living at the poker table". The rounders in Rounders are Worm, an ex-con (a lean, nervy Edward Norton), and Mike, his best mate (swoon of the moment Matt Damon), a law student who's given up his game to appease his whiney girlfriend (Gretchen Mol, with scrunchy hair and overplucked eyebrows, just to make sure that you hate her instantly).

Though he's meant to be a support act for Damon, Norton's Worm is the film's main attraction. His is a live-wire performance, full of self- destructive - yet plausible - energy. The lantern-jawed Oscar boy is made to look a dullard in comparison, left on the sidelines to frown at Norton's compelling spikiness. Damon is a pretty dud hand on his own, too: when Mike loses $3,000 at the card table, Damon just blows and blinks like he's trying to decide whether to have ketchup or chilli sauce on his hot dog. I sense a backlash is about to begin.

The local colour, however, is nicely shaded. Dahl gives us a pin-point sharp sense of the environments through which his characters move. He allows us to soak up the mahogany-and-Brown-Windsor-soup atmosphere of a country club, where his boys fleece a trio of pipe-smoking preppies. He takes us on a tour of a cheesy card lounge in a New Jersey hotel, where the check-shirted white trash come to lose their holiday spends. We pass through a strip-joint, its toilets pasted with grimy porno pictures, and visit a suburban bar filled with gambling cops - where Worm and Mike soon find themselves on the wrong end of a policeman's brawl. Most strikingly, Dahl lets us taste the sour air of a hardcore poker club owned by Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), an underground space as sparse as an abattoir.

Unfortunately, the success of this detailing is undercut by Malkovich's ludicrous performance as this biscuit-munching Mr Big. His hyper-Slavic accent is the main problem. Did Dahl agree to pay him by the glottal stop, I wonder? When Mike wants to scuttle away from the club, Teddy declares that he is "jarst like a yeng myan kemming een fyor a kweeky". (Nothing in the glossary about that.) Nobody in the club looks ruffled by the fact that their host seems to be limbering up for the Nizhniy Novgorod panto, but Malkovich's silliness ruins Dahl's chances of cranking up the menace for the concluding face-off between Teddy and Mike. And when the director uses slo-mo and a rumbling soundtrack for a moment in which Malkovich pulls apart the two halves of an Oreo biscuit (a sort of bitumen-coloured Custard Cream), it's difficult to take the film quite seriously. Vyery dyeefycoolt indeed.

John Frankenheimer made his first feature in 1956. His latest is a weary- looking espionage thriller that showcases the creative fatigue you'd expect after 40-odd years in the Hollywood system. Ronin wastes the time of its impressive cast (Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard) with a dog-eared plot about a team of mercenaries in pursuit of that dreary McGuffin, a suitcase containing a top-secret something-or-other. The hit squad are all the usual types: the woebegone Cold War-horse who still hasn't lost his touch (De Niro); the volatile young Brit who uses Lavender Hill Mob expressions like "swag" and "raspberry jam" (Sean Bean); the icy IRA girl who's ready to melt (Natasha McElhone); the boffin with a bank of computers that make those elaborate bleeping and tweeting sounds that computers only make in films (Skargsard).

For a moment, it seems as if the seen-it-all-before-ness of the movie will somehow become its subject: McElhone's crack group of operatives have the air of burnt-out middle-managers pressured into going on an outdoor bonding weekend when they'd rather be falling asleep over a Sunday matinee thriller like Ronin, and De Niro even gets a couple of lines about only being in it for the money. Unfortunately, after half an hour or so of this, you realise that you're meant to be finding it exciting. Counting the cliches is the only fun you'll get: the car-chase through the street- market where the empty crates and the fresh fruit go a-flying; the daft zoom shots revealing where that mysterious gunshot really came from; shady types peering over newspapers; the hero snogging the girl when the inquisitive police car passes by. You might perk up for a moment, though, during a breakneck BMW chase around the Paris one-way system that might have been somebody's tasteless tribute to Princess Diana.

The Eel is a much less predictable creature. In fact, cinema rarely gets more slippery than Shohei Imamura's Cannes Palme d'Or winner. It begins like a road-to-ruin melodrama, as a taciturn office clerk called Takura (Koji Yakusho) kills his wife and her lover in a classic crime of passion: the corny score bashes away, curtains part to reveal the adulterers, the murderer stares up at a streetlamp and literally sees red. Ten minutes later, however, it has moved on eight years and become a film about the relationship between a paroled Takura and his pet eel (Anguilla anguilla), as they seek solace in a remote waterside community, the Japanese equivalent of Norfolk.

There are all sorts of stylistic slithers the viewer must try to get a grip on. Sometimes the movie is a very Japanese kind of farce, for which Imamura lays on lots of shouting, some gags with a vibrator, and a Three Stooges-style scrap in which the heroine (Misa Shimizu) bashes people over the head with a drainpipe-shaped eel trap. Elsewhere it assumes a haiku-like elegance, and Imamura gives us beautiful footage of the moon over the canal, of flowers on the riverbank, or of the water's sunlit skin. Moreover, you can never quite be sure that what you're watching is actually happening, or if it's one of the hallucinations from which its characters periodically suffer. Aspects of the murder which begins the movie are called into question by these lurches between reality and illusion. Fortunately, The Eel is as bewitching as it is baffling, and the pleasure you feel at the rightness of its ending indicates that you've been on a journey as momentous and eccentric as if you'd swum from Tokyo to the Sargasso Sea and back.

Angel Sharks, by first-time writer-director Manuel Pradal, is a very different kettle of fish. Set along a gorgeous stretch of Mediterranean coast, it's a film with an impressively seductive surface. Images of lush foliage and bluer-than-blue water are woven into scenes of its adolescent cast slugging Jack Daniels on the dodgems, going to bed with American sailors, fondling stolen service revolvers, and doing pretty much everything else that might horrify their inexplicably absent parents. Pradal has an eye for sun, sex and violence, but all this studied sensuality doesn't really add up to much. File under Triumphs of Style over Content.

The dramatis personae of Dead Man's Curve make Pradal's teen tearaways look positively angelic. Dan Rosen's movie is a pitch-black comedy-thriller about a pair of college students (Matthew Lillard, Michael Vartan) who are tempted into murder by an obscure regulation that awards straight A's to the room-mates of suicides. So they decide to fake the death of their boorish, manipulative best friend (Randall Batinkoff). They underline passages in his copy of The Bell Jar, scatter his shelves with Suzanne Vega and Smiths CDs, then lace his tequila with rat poison. Rosen's film is unbalanced by Lillard's goggle-eyed overacting, but the box-of-tricks plot is winningly perverse, and the table-turning denouement is drive- in melodrama par excellence.

There are no such surprises in Les Miserables, in which Bille August uses Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Geoffrey Rush to give the all-star treatment to Victor Hugo's story of how the theft of one baguette can reap terrible consequences - a crippling prison sentence, war, revolution, stuff like that. Deferent, earnest and immensely long, it's as trad as such productions get. Neeson squirms in dot-eyed anguish, Thurman coughs up blood, and Rush snarls under a big hat - but at least no one goes into a Boublil and Schonberg number.

Lastly, a slab of weirdness from the archive: Gary Cooper stars in King Vidor's The Fountainhead (1949), a barmy right-wing melodrama about a modernist architect locked in battle with a profession stuck on Neoclassical mediocrity. The dialogue is mainly bonkers ("The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing!" exclaims Cooper, like Nietzsche with a T- square), and there are lots of Freudian larks as Patricia Neal melts over the hero's power-tools and concrete erections. Most strikingly, there's a searing contempt for popular taste that'll make anyone who revels in their dados and horse-brasses run screaming from the cinema.

100 years of movie poker: Essay, page 14