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New Release Review - The Gambler

Remake of the 1974 existential classic.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson, George Kennedy, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andre Braugher, Richard Schiff



Remake: the very word is enough to make many cinephiles recoil in terror and cry blasphemy. The remake is widely seen as the most cynical move in an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood playbook, "If it worked once, it'll work again!" being the attitude of unimaginative suits. Experience has told us lightning rarely strikes twice, with most remakes being the pointless, soulless cash-grabs you'd expect. There are of course exceptions - The Thing, Scarface, even Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead - but the successful remakes rework an old team while updating it for a new generation. The nature of gambling has changed significantly since Karel Reisz's classic original hit theatres in 1974, with the internet making it a vice now accessible to anyone with a credit card and a web browser. Reisz's film wasn't broke and didn't need to be fixed, but perhaps something new could be added to its concept. After all, Wyatt did a superb job in updating Planet of the Apes for a new audience.
Sadly, Wyatt's remake is a dud. A dumbed down, didactic dud. The Reisz directed, James Toback scripted original kept its protagonist's motivations ambiguous, allowing us to gradually come to the conclusion that James Caan wasn't addicted to gambling, he was addicted to losing. Such ambiguity is dispensed immediately when less than 10 minutes into the remake Michael Kenneth Williams' loan shark provides Mark Wahlberg's existentially gaunt gambler with just such a diagnosis. And in case we took our seats late, Wahlberg practically tells every character he encounters the very same thing.
Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan seem to have attempted to turn a stark drama into a rousing thriller, but when the movie's protagonist doesn't care about his own fate, it's pointless placing him in a variety of dangerous situations. The "villains" Caan found himself up against had an underlying menace and never needed to perpetrate acts of violence on him to make us take their threats seriously. Here, the various money-lenders, bookies and casino owners are caricatures that would be more at home in one of the Coen brothers' more comedic works. They seem a lot more scared of Wahlberg than he is of them.
The movie's females don't fare any better. Jessica Lange is shuffled in and out quickly for a handful of scenes as Wahlberg's long-suffering mother. Bizarrely, she seems to have an Irish accent in her first scene, which inexplicably disappears for the remainder of her screen time. Brie Larsen, who won our hearts in 2013's Short Term 12, is wasted in the Lauren Hutton role. The character is reworked from a ditzy arm ornament to the brightest student in Wahlberg's English literature class, but ironically she's asked to do little but stare at the lead with puppy dog eyes.
This is one remake I can't recommend, but we're all the masters of our own fates. If you're considering seeing The Gambler, maybe a coin toss should decide yours.




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