“I think you’re the kinda guy who likes to lose.”
I’m in the minority when I say that this remake, which is actually more of a reimagining, is a better film than the 1974 picture starring James Caan. The pace is faster and the stakes are greatly amplified. In the original, Caan plays Axel Freed, a gambling addict who owes $44,000 to the wrong people. In this version Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett. He owes $240,000 to various loansharks, all of whom make it known they are not afraid to kill him should he not pay up. The original is a decent film, but for a movie about gambling, it never antes up high enough. The Gambler suffers from a lack of character depth and one of the worst sport sequences I have ever seen but still wins more bets than it loses. It comes out even.
Jim Bennett would have a zero on ratemyprofessors.com. He’s a literature teacher who spends the majority of the class period berating students and vociferating about life during one of his many smug tangents. First day and the lecture hall is full; days later and it’s small enough to know every student by name. Jim is, pardon my French, an asshole. He’s intelligent, accomplished, from a wealthy family. The guy shouldn’t have any problems. But he likes the possibility of losing just barely less than he does winning. Gambling is his high, what makes him temporarily feel good about himself. Wahlberg does an excellent job expressing the cocky, scummy grin Jim has while winning, and transitions into a hopeless, destructive, and heartbreaking character when the house wins, as it always does.
Amy Phillips (Brie Larson, magical as always) is one of Jim’s students, with whom he shares outside the class relations. She cares about him despite his flaws, and hopes to see him mature from a boy into a man, from a senseless gambler to a balanced individual. Jessica Lange is excellent as Jim’s mother. She loans the ungrateful brat enough money to settle his debts, which he instantly squanders at a crappy casino. The supporting cast is rounded out with two great performances, one from John Goodman as Frank and the other from Michael K. Williams as Neville Baraka. Neville uses physical force to get what he wants; Frank is Jim’s last option for a massive loan. Wahlberg reportedly shed 60 pounds for the film, and while his character is too unbalanced, he still makes the role his own. It’s solid acting all-around.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt, The Gambler has an outstanding soundtrack and even better dialogue. Stylistically it couldn’t be more different than the 1974 version. The story largely remains in tact but the execution is the polar opposite. The original is languid and lacks intensity. That’s not the case here. Scripted by William Monohan, there are a couple of truly great monologues and the story’s chips consistently fall into place. Jim only has 7 days to get the money, and Wyatt excellently places the numbered countdown right into the storyworld. Usually that breaks up the movie…not here though. And throughout we have a growing sense that Jim might just not be willing to change. That you can fool him once, then twice, and the shame will always be on him. He’s never outright prescribed as a gambling addict, unlike the 1974 version, but it’s all too obvious that the man, or boy, has a problem. An abysmal basketball sequence and Jim’s slight character detail keep The Gambler from hitting the jackpot.
“When someone needs that amount of money in cash, nothing’s okay.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5