‘The Gambler’ nails the look, but misses the feel of the original

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Caution: The endings of both Rupert Wyatt’s film and the 1974 original are discussed in the editorial below.

The Gambler
Written by William Monahan
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
USA, 2014

Usually the first thing added to a film when it is remade is glitz. American films from the 1970s had their own distinct, philosophical quality to them, something that inevitably gets lost in translation when the material is put to screen again by a new team of filmmakers. Still, the one thing I didn’t anticipate while watching screenwriter William Monahan and star Mark Wahlberg tackle The Gambler was a lack of visceral thrills. Director Rupert Wyatt’s film nails the look of 1974’s The Gambler, but it lacks the feel of the original.

Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) — changed from Alex Freed (James Caan) in the previous film — is a gambler. He earns his money as a literature professor, but the tables is where it parts ways with Jim’s wallet. Jim hits a hot blackjack streak, then proceeds to get up, move it to the roulette table and then lose it all. The owner of the L.A. set casino is forgiving, but $240,000 is too much to overlook. Jim comes from a wealthy background, but even $240,000 is hard to cough up in a week. Privilege has its benefits though; Jim’s mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) whips out the checkbook to clear that debt, temporarily solving Jim’s problems.

In no time at all he squanders that goodwill and Roberta leaves with the promise that she won’t be there to rescue him again. Quite fittingly described as “the world’s stupidest asshole,” completely unphased by his latest screw-up, he takes $50K from a loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) and uses his newfound stake to lose even more. Why he continues down this vicious road is perplexing to viewers. Jim doesn’t even get a rush out of the highs that came from running a table; peace only seems to spread across his face when that knockout punch is delivered by the dealer. And it doesn’t end at the table either. An associate professor in the light of day, Jim tells his students not to bother unless they’re great. There’s just too much mediocrity in the world already. Jim doesn’t seem to enjoy anything, other than digging himself out of holes.

Films about drug lords are criticized heavily for glamorizing the lifestyle and ecstasy of the drug trade, but an appeal must be present, otherwise why would anyone do it? There is an unrivaled thrill in beating the odds and being triumphant — if only briefly. Jim looks to lose and nothing more; no satisfaction can be had in being up $2.5 million. In examining the psychology of a gambler, the highs have to be present as well, otherwise audiences can only respond with indifference. To say there is a half missing here is an understatement.

Monahan doesn’t have James Toback’s history with the tables, so it would make sense as to why the glorious highs of riding a streak aren’t necessarily there. He looked at a compulsive gambler like the rest of us do: “Why do you keep going?” The 1974 film written by Toback was heavily influenced by the writer’s own personal demons with gambling. Toback has described that film as “the closest thing to an autobiographical movie that I’ve ever written or will write.” And that personal sense of joy and exuberance when riding a high at the tables seems to be what’s missing from this remake.

Axel Freed is charged by the threat of losing, though he feels like he can manipulate luck into victory just by wanting it badly enough. Not surprising given his speech to his students that even though two plus two equals four, he can will it to be five. Axel loses, but he admits to his flame (Lauren Hutton), “I love winning… even though it never lasts.” The new Gambler is almost entirely a cycle of losing; borrowing from Peter to pay Paul and then lose even more. Making matters more challenging is that Wahlberg’s protagonist makes a viewer inclined to root against him. Delivering a colorful stream of obscenity and relentless cynicism, Wahlberg is lacking in the charm Caan effortlessly radiated playing Axel Freed. This isn’t to say that the character choice is a slight on the film; it works, it’s just surprising.

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Well, maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising given that Monahan is the man behind the script. Monahan, who had a hand in another remake with Wahlberg (The Departed), handed Wahlberg a mean, profanity-laced role and watched the Academy reward him with a Best Supporting Actor nomination. So it’s hard to blame the creative team for hoping it would work again. Still, in an age where remakes are slicker and the edges are sanded off characters for mass audience consumption, Wahlberg’s titular performance as The Gambler offers little joy. Wahlberg has proven himself more than capable of leading blockbusters, but none of those films feature a lead as nihilistic as this.

Granted, 1974’s Gambler had its own moments where it reveled in darkness, the epitome of that sentiment taking place when Caan stands and stares into a mirror, evaluating the new scar on his face from a knife attack. Whereas Toback stands back and asks why this has to happen, Monahan smacks his compulsive degenerate around early and often. But perhaps the most cynical move of all—coming from an audience point of view anyway—is to take that same character who we’ve been watching raging into the abyss all along and send him off into the sunset with his girlfriend. For a movie that makes little effort to romanticize its protagonist, this iteration of The Gambler awards its leading man a happy ending, despite not liking the man very much. A curious choice, but more than likely a studio-mandated one. If Axel couldn’t make it work, how can Jim possibly manage?

— Colin Biggs

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