Best Bets: Sweet-Ass Poker Scenes

This Friday, Curtis Hanson serves up Lucky You, which pits Eric Bana against Robert Duvall in the World Series of Poker. In preparation, I’m musing about some memorable movie hands. Join me?

The Sting (1973)

As any conscientious director of gambler-centric cinema is well aware, the name of the game in an effective poker scene (besides "poker") is "tension," one of the quickest shortcuts to which is to go shopping for a good heavy. George Roy Hill, in the best con flick ever, netted himself the cream of the glowering, dark-browed crop: Robert Shaw. The impeccable result is the legendary train-borne duel between Captain Quint and a faux-besotted "Fast" Eddie Felson that neatly encapsulates all the giddy, twisty fun of this consummate Newman-Redford pas de deux.

Tombstone (1993)

Val Kilmer can play all the benippled batfolk, closeted fighter pilots, and weird-ass dinosaur spacepeople he desires from here on out, and his enduring legacy of celluloid bad-assery will remain unassailably ironclad. Why? Two names: Madmartigan and Doc Holliday. (And maybe that dude from Top Secret!, but that’s just the buttercream on the ass-kick cake.) Quite possibly the most consistently quotable character of the decade, Kilmer’s Oscar-worthy Holliday is on full display early on: After laying down the winning poker hand despite not even really paying attention, he lays down the taunt, too: "You know, Ed, if I thought you weren’t my friend, I just don’t think I could bear it." Guns down. "There, now we can be friends again." And then he shanks Frank Stallone. (In self-defense, natch.)

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

By far the best use of training-wheel spectators, used to demystify the events of a climactic game for the less-than-poker-savvy (see James Garner in Maverick, Giancarlo Giannini in Casino Royale), and a doozie of a final hand, to boot: Karl Malden and Ann-Margret look on as Steve McQueen takes it to Edward G. Robinson (nyahh!), all cut memorably by the great Hal Ashby. Like The Man says: "You’re good, kid. But as long as I’m around, you’re second best. You might as well learn to live with it."

Rounders (1998)

“Flopped the nut.” Two men, straight faces. Jargon-jargon-jargon, then Damon leads you through everything like a toddler (which, faith, I needed). A formidably cool flick, thanks largely to John Malkovich’s Oreo-chomping foe, a dude named Worm, and a sweet hustle scene wherein Damon likens himself and Norton to Clyde and Pearl (respect).

Maverick (1994)

Oh my good gravy do I love Maverick. Seriously. It’s one of those pictures that makes me warmer, happier, probably a better person when I think of it. It doesn’t attempt the gravitas of Rounders or The Cincinnati Kid, opting rather for fun — and that’s precisely what it achieves, by the (steam)boatload. Plenty of card games here, but it’s hard to beat the first one, where he loses for an hour and then out-draws John Wesley Hardin, and the last one, where he sticks it to James Coburn and Alfred Molina with a deliciously over-the-top, slo-mo ace of spades.

Casino Royale (2006)
Much good, high-stakes pokering to be had, with Daniel Craig (insert double-take re: McQueen and Kid) and Mads Mikkelsen’s freaky milk-eye facing off via Pop-Tart-sized chips. Plus, it’s arguably the best Bond ever.

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Brian Villalobos lives in Austin, Texas (practically), writes on film and TV, and totally cried at Stuart Little.

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