The Gambler (2014)

The Only way out is All in.

A surprising follow-up project to his 2011 hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt’s latest undertaking, The Gambler is a remake of the 1974 picture, and much like the original film, starring James Caan, is a loose adaptation of the classic Fyodor Dostoevsky novella, aptly titled The Gambler. In this modern retelling, Mark Wahlberg, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), plays the lead, risk taker Jim Bennett, an English Professor by day and high-stakes gambler by night.

Raising the Stakes!
Raising the Stakes!

Trying his luck at a casino late one evening, high roller Jim Bennett bets it all when he borrows money from a dangerous gangster — the intimidating yet charming Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams) — and offers his own life as collateral. Always one-step ahead of the game, Bennett pits his creditor against Lee (Alvin Ing), the proprietor of a gambling ring, in turn shattering the dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange), who is torn between paying her son’s debts or teaching him a lifelong lesson. Playing both sides, Bennett immerses himself in an illicit, underground world, garnering the attention of Frank (John Goodman), a loan shark with a paternal interest in Bennett’s future. As his questionable relationship with gifted writing student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) deepens, Bennett works up the motivation to take the ultimate risk for a second chance at life, in the hope of breaking out of his addictive and unhealthy lifestyle.

The Gambler is essentially a Mark Wahlberg vehicle as his dynamite expose really anchors and steers the picture along. Preparing for this testing part fairly vigorously, Wahlberg recently stated that the role of Jim Bennett was the most taxing of his career thus far. The bad-boy-rapper-turned-Hollywood-superstar lost a substantial amount of body weight by going on a rigorous diet, consisting of mostly liquid food and vegetables, and tackled a workout of strictly cardio; Wahlberg also sat in on many courses around different colleges in California, analyzing countless professors and their mannerisms so that he could believably depict a literary lecturer. Even though Wahlberg prepared for this challenging part rather laboriously, he did state that he would, ‘never again attempt to lose that much weight for a film gig.’ So, did Wahlberg’s hard work, training and dedication ultimately pay off? It most certainly did, as this is by far one of the strongest performances of Wahlberg’s thriving acting career, with Bennett being unpredictable, impulsive and volatile, and a real joy to watch, as Wahlberg accurately paints the portrait of a tortured artist with a death wish.

Casino Pun? I wouldn't roulette out!
Casino Pun? I wouldn’t roulette out!

Wahlberg is adequately supported by a cast of relatively gifted secondary players, from his fierce and privileged mother Roberta, Jessica Lange, Tootsie (1982) — with Lange delivering one of her most stirring and memorable performances in recent years — to John Goodman’s, The Big Lebowski (1998), powerful and controlling Frank, who becomes somewhat of an unconventional father-figure to Jim. The real second tier highlight however is Brie Larson, Short Term 12 (2013), who plays the sweet scholarly, girl-next-door writing student Amy, giving Wahlberg’s Bennett enough warmth, sensitivity and sympathy to justify his attempt at finally going clean.

With a screenplay penned by William Monahan, the man responsible for writing Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) — and Monahan’s sharp gripping script having won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay that year — his efforts in delivering a fulfilling journey for The Gambler’s self-loathing protagonist are middling at best, as while the rendering and portrayal of Bennett is quite exhaustive and complex, certain key characters surrounding him don’t feel as fleshed out or as comprehensive as they ought to. Several background players in particular feel underdeveloped and are seen making questionable decisions throughout the picture, decisions which lack any real substance or motive — a college star basketball player, Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), takes a bribe to win one of his college basketball games by a margin of seven points or less, and this weighty moral dilemma is simply glanced over. With that said though, the script is well paced overall and compelling enough, even though it’s often simplistic and rather run-of-the-mill at times.

Not necessarily a good man!
Not necessarily a good man!

On a side note, The Gambler’s soundtrack is admittedly impressive, featuring a soulful, blues and jazzy mix of contemporary and classic sounding tunes; ‘Airwaves,’ performed by Ray LaMontagne, certainly sticks to mind, being a fitting melody for the film’s auspicious finale, playing as the end credit roll.

Gritty, and often relatively intense, Wyatt succeeds in crafting a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and suspense, chiefly in its portrayal of the seedy gambling world and its tormented central character, Jim Bennett. Elevated by excellent performances, from Wahlberg in particular, who finds his most interesting role since The Departed, The Gambler is not as powerful as it could have been — many argue that Caan’s 1974 The Gambler flick is a far superior effort, though never having seen it myself, I can’t really make a comparison — but this remake of sorts stands as a decent enough entertainer on its own.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Gambler is released through Paramount Pictures Australia