Movie Review – The Gambler

The stakes are high for Mark Wahlberg as he fills the shoes of a man with a life-threatening gambling debt. With seven days to pay his dues, his only way out is the same way he got in.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Review by Corey Hogan

Have it all or have nothing. This is the thinking that shapes Jim Bennett’s (Mark Wahlberg) view of the world; an outlook that renders all else expendable in its pursuit – including his own life. Granted, it is a double life Bennett leads; by day a literary professor attempting to contain a severe gambling addiction that shows its ugly face by night. One unfortunate evening lands him in an enormous debt to both a loan shark, and the owner of an underground gambling ring, which he is given seven days to pay off, or face an early grave. As the week passes Bennett seeks the help of his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange), and another loan shark (John Goodman), and begins to realise that perhaps gambling at such high stakes is not the best solution to all his problems, especially once finding something worth living for through an entanglement with A-Grade student Amy (Brie Larson).

Remaking a classic is always a big gamble (haw haw etc.), but fortunately Rupert Wyatt’s (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) updated version of The Gambler is just slick and stylish enough, and just different enough from the 1974 James Caan original to warrant existence. Penned by The Departed’s William Monahan, it never quite reaches the heights of its first incarnation, and is surprisingly lighter in tone (less pimp fights and prostitutes this time round), but manages to be relatively entertaining in its own right.

As the titular Gambler, Mark Wahlberg (who does vaguely recall James Caan in his appearance) breathes his natural charisma into a character that is something of an enigma. Wahlberg gives nothing away as we enter the shady world of underground gambling. Bennett gambles continuously and dangerously; when he has won big it’s double or nothing, when he’s lost it all he turns to whoever can loan him the money to win it all back. While I was hard-pressed believing Wahlberg could convince as a professor of English, he is given some meaty monologues of interesting philosophical subject matter early on that allow him to cut loose. His motives remain an oddity throughout, but Marky Mark keeps Bennett highly watchable for the entire run time; it may not be among his greatest performances but it is definitely a step in the right direction away from Transformers: Age of Extinction.

The remainder of the cast put in a solid effort – John Goodman is in familiar territory hamming it up as one of the film’s antagonists, though he does get to preach a few unorthodox life lessons (what he labels the “fuck you” outlook on life), and his admiration of Bennett does give his character a little depth. The bubbly Brie Larson serves well as Bennett’s prize student and love interest, though the film seems to forget about her around the third act. It’s Jessica Lange, on loan from American Horror Story, who leaves a lasting impression as Jim’s disappointed mother. Her screen time totals less than ten minutes, but she shines in one particular scene wherein she escorts her son to the bank to bail him out of his debts. Lange emits a ferocious energy as she expresses her anger for her son’s choices in life, and outrage for unwillingly entering a situation no mother should face.

All these elements make up a film that doesn’t quite gel together the way it should. It is difficult to warm to such an alienating protagonist, and some characters and scenarios feel underwritten as a result. Wyatt’s direction is sharp and vivid, but offers little in the way of suspense or tension, which is a crime for a film that feels more mature than most thrillers. Nonetheless The Gambler remains an entertaining and highly watchable ride thanks to its strong lead performance – even if purists would prefer to rent the original.

THREE STARS

The Gambler is in Australian cinemas NOW.

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