Yes you read the headline right. Mark Wahlberg is sick of life. Sick of it all. No wait his character Jim Bennett, an English literature lecturer from a wealthy family hates life. Through his nocturnal gambling activities he aims to essentially commit ‘suicide by gangster’ by racking up huge debts to three money lenders. These three ominous figures are Mister Lee (Alvin Ing) – who no of course isn’t a massive Korean stereotype, even though one of his goon’s inexplicably kung fu kicks Wahlberg, Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) – who skirts dangerously close to Morpheous levels of spouting nonsense phrases and Frank (John Goodman) who is generally menacing and terrific because he’s played by John Goodman.
A re-make of the 1970’s film of the same name. Before we had James Caan playing an unlikely lecturer now forty years later Wahlberg plays an even more unlikely one. Written from the semi-autobiographical mind of film maker James Toback this time The Departed‘s William Monahan is tackling the story. Focusing less on Bennett’s relationship with his family and his societal standing as a man of wealth and culture and delving more on to his masochistic looser streak. The original touched on that subject *spoiler alert* , the realisation of which was essentially the climax. Here the notion is repeated by all those around him ad nauseum “you got a death wish?”, “you just don’t want to live do you?”, “we will repeat this fact to the audience because we don’t think they are a) intelligent enough b) paying attention c) intelligent enough”. Which is a shame because director Rupert Wyatt’s previous Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of the smarter blockbusters to come from Hollywood in some time.
That’s not to say The Gambler is a completely hokey mess. Despite his best efforts and weight loss Wahlberg doesn’t convince as a teacher, he does however come into his own during the crime related happenings. His sullen face coupled with sad sarcastic delivery weirdly warms up whenever he stands at a blackjack table. In these sequences the film wakes up a bit. As mentioned John Goodman seems to be having a good old time delivering ominous gangsterism and Jessica Lange’s much touted appearance is far too brief but effective. Brie Larson appears as they student love interest who seems to turn up when and if the plot requires her to wake Wahlberg up a little.
It’s an odd thing The Gambler. You can see all the beats coming a mile away. The main romantic relationship between Wahlberg and Larson is perfunctory at best. The “villains” ineffectual and the message beaten into you. But there is something oddly compelling about the film. It never feels like it’s dragging. Wyatt knows how to trip tention out of casino scenes and his eye for a pretty frame is coming on leaps and bounds. Even the soundtrack is well chosen with moody electro from M83, although a seemingly random sequence where Larson listens to Pulp’s ‘Common People’ betrays his beginnings as a Hollyoaks director.
Handsomely mounted visually and editing wise with a few good performances. The Gambler is a more enjoyable watch than it really has the right to be given it’s vapid and un-original plotting.
Dir: Rupert Wyatt
Scr: William Monahan, based on the screen play by James Toback
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael K Williams, Jessica Lange, John Goodman
Prd: Robert Chartoff, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler
DOP: Greig Fraser
Music: Jon Brion, Theo Green
Run time: 111 mins
The Gambler is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD via Paramount Home Media Distribution