Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Michael K. Williams, Jessica Lange
UK Release Date: 23rd January 2015
The marketing and trailers for The Gambler would have you believe that the movie is a gritty thrill-ride through the world of high-stakes, underground gambling joints, written by the same William Monahan that penned the screenplay for 2006’s crime hit, The Departed. However, while The Gambler certainly contains an abundance of blackjack and roulette, it also features much more existential crisis than actual, traditional action. Swapping James Caan with Mark Walhberg as the title character, this remake of the imperfect 1974 cult hit is a slick and attractively modern affair, but distinctly and unavoidably flawed.
Jim Bennet (Wahlberg) is an English literature professor by day and a self-destructive risk taker by night, playing blackjack until the L.A. sun rises. His teaching style is brash and unprofessional, forcefully lecturing students about the nature of mediocrity or the virtues of genius, but his gaming style is even worse. Jim’s luck runs out when he is cut off by his creditors and given 1 week to pay back his debt. Between Lee, a Korean gambling kingpin (Alvin Ing), and Neville, a ruthless loan shark (Michael K. Williams), Jim owes over $250,000 and turns to his weary mother (Jessica Lange) as well as Frank (John Goodman), another loan shark, to help with his financial struggles.
Mark Wahlberg certainly looks the part of the dishevelled professor, having shed 40 pounds for the role, and his performances when cutting deals with underworld bosses or doubling down with questionable cards are convincing and solid. Unfortunately, it’s the scenes when he’s teaching that are disappointing, suffering from a combination of dubious acting, farfetched dialogue and utterly implausible physical actions, jumping on desks to rant at his classes about the depressing brutality of life. John Goodman and Michael K. Williams serve as the two stand-outs in The Gambler, with Goodman’s “fuck you” speech serving as a particular high-point. Brie Larson is perfectly adequate as the student love interest, who knows Jim from both literature class and her waitressing job at his favourite blackjack den. However, what begins as a potentially interesting character is reduced to a mere device in a weak romantic subplot that is completely lacking in on-screen chemistry, and she appears to only exist in order to provide Jim with more opportunities to share his jaded worldview. Jessica Lange seems to have suffered the same treatment, appearing only momentarily and given little to no development, despite her role as Jim’s emotionally drained mother being well executed.
On top of under-utilised characters lacking development, The Gambler suffers from a muddled script throughout. Dialogue is reduced to either “cop movie-style”, back and forth snappiness, or bloated monologues that will have many looking at their watches, though Goodman’s speeches and some of Wahlberg’s lengthy diatribes are sufficiently thought-provoking. Additionally, while it’s visual appeal is generally very stylish, The Gambler’s confused nature also bleeds into the direction in certain areas, and the appearance of some strange shot choices just give a feeling of inconsistence rather than impressiveness.
In spite of these criticisms, The Gambler is not a terrible film, it just misses the mark in a few too many areas to be labelled a great film. It’s beautiful and engaging, for the most part, and the idea of owing a quarter of a million dollars to criminals is certainly enough to stimulate your imagination (and thankfully it avoids the typical “gambling movie” cliche of painfully explaining how a hand of blackjack is played). Unfortunately, your imagination may just overtake the film, because for someone playing with such high-stakes, Jim simply never seems to be under much genuine threat.
* * *
3 / 5 stars
Written by James Excell