The Gambler—The AllMovie Review

★ ★ ★

Writer/director James Toback typically tells stories about the same type of main character: an intelligent, hyper-verbal white guy with a compulsive self-destructive streak, who gets himself in over his head financially and romantically. That was true of his very first script, 1974’s The Gambler (directed by Karel Reisz), which director Rupert Wyatt has remade with Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed).

Mark Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a literature professor reeling from the death of his beloved grandfather (George Kennedy). His all-or-nothing personality gets him in debt for more than a quarter of a million dollars to the no-nonsense Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), who runs an illegal gambling den. Jim attempts to play his way out of the hole by borrowing money from vicious criminal Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), but his strategy backfires and leaves him owing the latter as well. His wealthy mother (Jessica Lange) initially refuses to give him any more money, which prompts Jim to make contact with Frank (John Goodman), a loan shark who offers to front him the cash he needs, but promises that failure to repay will lead to the death of his “bloodline.”

At the same time, Jim teaches a class of college kids about Shakespeare and Camus. His best student, Amy (Brie Larson), openly flirts with him, but he’s also preoccupied with trying to get through to Lamar (Anthony Kelley), a star basketball player whom the university higher-ups want him to pass so he can continue to play.

The Gambler has a rock-solid plot, but Wyatt and Monahan aren’t as interested in what will happen as they are in why. The film is a character study that has you wondering what’s in Jim’s soul right up to the climax. Wahlberg carries the movie and gives an unexpected performance: Though he’s best known for playing tough guys, this character is all about mental, not physical, intimidation. It’s a talky picture, and Wahlberg and company are all quite comfortable with the heady mix of tough-guy insults, existential philosophy, and theatrical monologues.

The film is little more than a series of pissing contests that Jim has with other alpha males, all of them in service of a dangerous internal journey in which he tries to determine whether or not he has anything to live for. Monahan has given the characters the kind of hard-boiled dialogue that makes you laugh without ever undercutting the tension—think Ray Winstone‘s speech in The Departed about guys you can hit and guys you can’t hit—and each member of the cast is adept at simultaneously playing the comedy and the seriousness.

You don’t need to see the original to appreciate Wyatt‘s movie, but if you have, you might have even more admiration for the new version. In the end, The Gambler turns out to be one of those rare remakes that manages to stand on its own terms, while still being faithful to the themes and tone of the original. It’s loyal to the past without being beholden to it. That was also true of Wyatt‘s previous film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and that ability to make the old seem new again indicates that he’s a valuable director in an era when Hollywood seems averse to green-lighting anything that doesn’t have built-in name recognition.