While the remake of 1975’s “The Gambler” has the same name, it’s tone, message and main character are vastly different.
The gambler is back. Blackjack pros, poker players and cinemaphiles old enough to remember “The Gambler,” the classic 1975 film starring James Caan and loosely inspired by a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel of the same name, can recall a fast-paced but heartfelt dramatization of the world of gambling.
While the film was about the harsh and violent world of illicit gambling in New York City, it’s really a character study of Axel Freed, a man unable to control his gambling. But it’s a not a cliché story about addiction, it’s about a man who gets a thrill from losing and a sense of liberation from hitting rock bottom.
Fast forward to 1975, Karel Reisz’s classic has been remade by up-and-coming director Rupert Wyatt, and the main character – this time named Jim Bennett – is played by Mark Wahlberg. Here is an in-depth take on what to expect, what not to, and why the story retold for the online blackjack generation.
Axel Freed or Jim Bennett?
James Caan’s Axel Freed is the classic gambling addict. A professor of literature, Freed is a man struggling to make it in a cold and hard world. Unwilling to accept his existence as it is, he turns to gambling as a means to escape.
The tragedy of the original film is that Freed is a masochist, a man who wants to lose. He doesn’t use proper blackjack strategy at the casino or following the numbers when betting on sports, because prefers to leave it all up to fate.
He shows his true colors when telling his bookie, “If all my bets were safe there just wouldn’t be any juice.” He could win, but gets more pleasure out of losing, which gets worse as he lets his gambling get out of control.
Jim Bennett, on the other hand, is quite different from Axel Freed. He is the heir to a fortune and a vast Los Angeles mansion, a man for whom material success comes far too easily. In a recent interview Wyatt described the main character of the remake:
This is not about a man whose life is out of control; this is a man who’s in a prison. He exists within a gilded cage. He has all of these opportunities, he has looks, he has wealth, he has education… That is essentially the story of an overdog wanting to become an underdog.
While Axel Freed was a luckless man trying to control his life but unable to, Bennett is a man of privilege bent on destroying what he sees as a too-ordered life. But he isn’t self-destructive. He wants to tear down the walls of his identity so he can build a new one. He is a much more optimistic character than Freed.
Exit New York, insert Los Angeles
Like many films made in the 1970s, Reisz’s was set in a dreary, unforgiving New York City. The original version had an unmistakable East Coast sensibility; the plot centers around Freed’s descent into a brutal criminal underworld of the Italian mob.
The remake has a much different setting, Los Angeles in 2014, a much softer, more welcoming but overly materialistic place. Whereas the 1975 film had undertones about people struggling to get by where there isn’t enough to go around, the new version is essentially the opposite, people trying to find spiritual meaning in a world of material abundance.
While the bad guys are no less brutal, this time around they’re Korean, not Italian. Part of Wyatt’s purpose in making the film was to explore the little-known but very real world of underground Korean gambling dens, which are located in various nooks and crannies across Los Angeles.
The gambling scenes
The two films feature almost the same opening scene, with the main character winning at blackjack. The only difference in that Freed wins by landing an 8 on top of his 13, and Bennett wins with a 3 to go with his 18.
But while blackjack is featured prominently, neither film can truly be called a blackjack movie. While Freed loses significant amounts playing blackjack, roulette and craps, the original is actually more about sportsbetting, with the climax occurring when he fixes a basketball game to cover a debt.
Table games are featured much more prominently in the remake. Jim Bennett is a junkie for blackjack and roulette, with little interest in sportsbetting. In that sense, the new film reflects the realities of modern gambling, a world in which the original plot wouldn’t have been able to play out.
Betting on sports in America is now a very un-glamorous affair involving placing wagers online and getting paid via bank transfer. The old days of fixed basketball games and busted kneecaps are long gone, which is why sportsbetting can’t be dramatized the way it could be in 1975.
The tone of Wyatt’s film is very true to the times, just as Reisz’s film was 40 years ago. While the original captured the grit and gloom of a rougher era, the remake portrays the decadence of 21st Century America. We now live in a softer, more technologically-advanced, more mundane age. Rupert Wyatt’s modern version of The Gambler is truly a sign of the times.
The Gambler is set to premier in New York and Los Angeles on December 19th, 2014.