Double Down – For those wondering how many films have been made around the topic of gambling, I have your answer. Well, sort of as I’m sure I will miss one or two based on “my” definition of a gambling film and those reading this. But, dating back to the sixties and seventies with classics like “The Hustler” (1961), “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965) and “The Sting” (1973), I can maybe remember a handful of other’s based in or around some facet of gambling. You know, films like “Rounders” (1998), “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984), “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998), “Poolhall Junkies” (2002) and my two personal favorites “Casino” (1995) and “The Color of Money” (1986). But, maybe the film I should have watched before “The Gambler” is the original from 1974 by the same name starring James Caan, as it might have given me a whole different perspective.
What’s it about? This remake of the 1974 classic follows the life of Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), who despite his wealthy upbringing and job as an English professor cannot find happiness. And about the only time he feels somewhat ‘alive’ is when he is gambling away money that usually is not his. Only problem is, this time he got in way too deep with two loan sharks creating quite the quandary when he was given just 7 days to pay back the money. You would never know it though, given Bennett’s “I don’t give a crap” attitude, which often drove his debtors crazy each time they tried to shake him up for the money he lost. This attitude, however, did not translate to the classroom where he was seen as a young hot-shot professor who liked to stir things up with long monologues about the cruelness of life and how it can relate to historical literature. But, as you watched Bennett unravel both during the day and at night, you start to realize there’s a lot more to this guy that first realized leading to a shocking conclusion.
Who was in it? Mark Wahlberg gets top credit here and for good reason considering the role he was playing, the same one James Caan brilliantly played back in 1974. That was a long time ago and while some may point to the similarities between this and the original, to me it’s different eras. Caan was coming off his role in “The Godfather” back in the day when he played this role while Wahlberg is coming off “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” So, not exactly the same feelings will be felt which is why it would be wrong to grade Wahlberg too hard for this role. Sure, there parts of William Monahan’s script that seemed to be too much for him, but he persevered and managed to win you over by the film’s end. Maybe that’s because of his maturity as an actor now or maybe it’s because of the talent like Brie Larson around him, who played the young Amy Philips and love interest of Bennett. Without a whole lot to work with, Larson proved her worthiness making me want to watch some of her previous work. And John Goodman, was well, John Goodman in all the ways you would hope. But, like Larson, there simply was not enough of him, which I think was a mistake given the importance of his character to this story. The true sleeper in this cast was Michael K. Williams, who played Neville Baraka, one of the loan sharks. Here’s guy I have always liked, but never knew about it until now thanks to a performance that comes out of nowhere. I have always maintained a good bad guy can help any film and it was no different here thanks to Williams.
Makeover hell – You know, early on before this project even became a film, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were said to be a part of it along with screenwriter William Monahan. What a combination that would have been, but unfortunately it never materialized leaving just Monahan to make something out of a story previously told. And I think he did the best he could, essentially putting his own spin on this story which helped director Rupert Wyatt make this look and feel different than the original. That’s crucial for any remake, much less one that comes this many years later. I just wish we would have been able to get a little more background on Wahlberg’s character and what got him to this point in his life. Because as trivial as it may sound, the smallest of background stories can prove to be the biggest driver’s for understanding the overall plot better. While this didn’t necessarily ruin the film, it probably would have helped Wyatt and Wahlberg hammer home some of the more emotional scenes.
Bottom Line – I’m not saying a classic film like “The Gambler” should never be remade, but sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone. And while I enjoyed this new version at times, it just felt as if it was missing something. That’s a shame given the kind of talent that was attached to this film, both behind and in front of the camera.
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