Rupert Wyatt’s remake of the 1974 classic should be lauded for its ambition, but for all its sound and fury, viewers are wanting for substance.
The Gambler, a remake of the classic 1974 film, is stylish, ambitious, sophisticated, and visually stunning. None of those things succeed in making it a good movie. The third film by English director Rupert Wyatt, its lacks the sensibility of his debut, The Escapist, and fails to match the visceral intensity of his second film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Whereas the original film by Karel Reiszderived much of its power from subtlety, the remake is overwrought. Where James Caan’s Axel Freed displayed the slow destruction of a man who is desperate but doesn’t know it, Mark Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett is a man who has everything but insists on appreciating none of it.
That’s not to say that The Gambler is a bad film, either. Wyatt and Wahlberg tried to bring something fresh and original to the often stale output of Hollywood. They ended up creating a movie that arouses curiosity but simply gets too many things wrong.
The film opens with a well-shot scene portraying the death and funeral of Bennett’s father, who is later revealed to have been the “18th richest man in the entire state of California.” Next we see Bennett pulling up to an underground Korean gambling establishment run by a man whom he owes $200,000.
That turns into $260,000, and Bennett soon has another, less polite creditor on his case, Neville Baraka, played with crass eloquence by Michael Kenneth Williams. Bennett is given a week to make good on all of his debts. When his bitter but loving mother (Jessica Lange) bails him out, he proceeds to blow all the money employing a losing blackjack strategy.
The plot is generally true to the original, although it muddles itself up with a larger cast of characters and numerous unnecessary plot devices. The ending scene, which won’t be mentioned here, was predictable, unsatisfying, and unrealistic.
What the movie got right
We live in harsh economic times, and the movie industry constantly reminds us of it. 2014’s Nightcrawler was a brilliant character study of Jake Gyllenhall’s ambitious sociopath, but it was also a commentary on today’s recession economy.
The Gambler eschews that low-hanging fruit, allowing us to indulge in a world of Los Angeles glitz and glamour. Whereas the original was characterized by a hard-edge, East Coast sensibility, the remake tells the tale of people to whom success comes too easily. Under some circumstances that may come off as superficial, but in the cynical context of modern cinema, it’s a breath of fresh air.
The supporting cast turns in brilliant performances. John Goodman engrosses as a calm, calculating loan shark doubling as a would-be mentor. His character takes an interest in Jim Bennett, apparently due to amusement that a man with so many natural advantages could be “the world’s stupidest asshole.”
The score is riveting throughout, catching the viewer off guard time and time again. Choices include Chopin, Cole Porter and Bob Dylan, Dinah Washington’s soulful “This Bitter Earth” and Scala &Kolacny Brothers’ haunting a cappella cover of “Creep.” The cinematography also shows us Los Angeles in all its lonely, unforgiving glory.
What The Gambler got wrong
The original moved at a slow but inexorable pace, allowing the viewer to drink in the bittersweet brew of Axel Freed’s self-destruction drop by drop. Wyatt opts for style over substance, presenting us with a glib film over-reliant on dialogue and a frenetic pace that fails to be suspenseful.
The film utilizes a countdown time structure in order to build suspense. The trope falls flat, and by the end of the film we hardly care how much time Bennett has to pay off his creditors.
Wahlberg puts every ounce of his boundless energy into Jim Bennett, but to no avail. The character is neither likeable nor tragic. Freed gambled because he was a gambling addict. Bennett gambles he is a spoiled brat to whom success comes far too easily. The only thing in life that can arouse his passions is losing piles of his deceased father’s money at the blackjack table.
Brie Larson is as charming and smart as ever as Amy Phillips, a talented student who inexplicably falls for her creepy, nihilistic English professor, who is none other than Jim Bennett. Larson’s performance is excellent but wasted.
Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan fail to develop her character, and for most of the film she is reduced to standing and looking pretty while Bennett spouts off glib monologue after glib monologue.
If you’re a fan of Mark Wahlberg or of gambling movies in general, this movie is worth a view. If you loved the original, you’ll probably be disappointed. If you’re looking for a film about blackjack, this isn’t it.
Rupert Wyatt missed the mark on this film, but no one can fault him for being ambitious. He is a superbly talented director, and certainly will produce better films in the future.
Rating: 2/4 Stars