The latest classic slice of ‘70s cinema to get the remake treatment is The Gambler, originally a gritty true-to-life drama starring James Caan but now a slickly presented, fast-talking one featuring an impassioned Mark Wahlberg showing that he’s more than just the action hero fodder that Michael Bay would have you believe.
Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor and career gambler who doesn’t quite know when to walk away when he’s got the upper hand on whatever betting establishment – flashy casino or seedy underground club – he happens to find himself playing against. When he foolishly bets it all and loses, he borrows money from local gangsters – including the frightening Frank (John Goodman) and ruthless Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams) and eventually his mother (Jessica Lange) to try and dig himself out. His life is further complicated when he starts a pensive relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson).
You get a sense when watching Wahlberg’s admirably committed central performance that he’s out to prove something as an actor. His haggard and slightly gaunt appearance – not too dissimilar to the transformation made by Jake Gyllenhaal in last year’s Nightcrawler – is one thing but even apart from that it’s a role that he really sinks his teeth into, relaying grand soliloquies on leading (or rather not leading, as it were) a better or more intellectually enriched life – “the world needs plenty of electricians,” he tells his literary students – like he means it as much as his character does. It’s certainly worlds away from his recent “who the hell am I kidding?” Texan in Transformers: Age of Extinction.
This helps to combat the nagging lack of empathy for the character throughout. It’s an interesting character study of a man hell bent on self destruction – playing out like the equivalent to an alcohol or drug addiction story – and of course that’s part of the point the film is making, that it’s an endless cycle from which it’s hard to escape. But nevertheless it’s hard to feel truly sorry for him or feel invested in his plight to break out when he keeps perpetuating his lifestyle of financial self-flagellation.
For those coming at the film looking for a good old-fashioned piece of crime drama then The Gambler delivers perfectly enjoyable entertainment in that respect, with quick-witted dialogue by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) and a cavalcade of supporting performers who give the film some much needed dramatic heft. John Goodman and Michael K. Williams turn potentially generic gangster money lenders of the kind we’ve seen time and time again in this type of thing into effectively polar opposite but equally frightening antagonists for our main character, providing some of the films most entertaining interactions; an extended scene in which Goodman tells him to aim for a position of being able to say “f*** you” to others as a sign that you’ve somehow made it to the top is a film highlight. And Jessica Lange gives a scene-stealing performance as Wahlberg’s mother who’s sick to death of her son’s destructive behaviour.
Also, the actual gambling scenes themselves are impressively achieved through a sense of coiling tension every time he asks the card dealer to “hit me,” or watches that white ball bounce around the roulette table; where many gambling-themed movies skimp or gloss over those scenes, they have impact and importance here. Less effective are the scenes with Wahlberg and Larson, which in spite of the latter’s very good performance (I think it’s scientifically proven that her presence in a film automatically makes it approximately 32.1% better) feels simultaneously extraneous but also like a heavy-handed way for the film to explore the possibility that there might be something else out there for Jim, even if that means running off with one of his students. It doesn’t help that the chemistry between her and Wahlberg is sorely lacking, if not practically non-existent.
I’m not sure The Gambler works as the grand cautionary tale, cinematic self-help book it ultimately aspires to be. For all its ostentatious speeches it feels curiously superficial, especially since the original had the benefit of being directly inspired by director James Toback’s real life experiences with gambling addiction, and it sometimes can’t decide whether it’s condemning the seedy world it presents or glamourising it. But it’s ultimately worth the gamble because as a self-contained crime drama with committed performances and entertainingly elegant dialogue, it does the trick.
The Gambler is released in UK cinemas on January 23rd.