The Gambler Isn’t Really A Strong Remake Of The 1974 Original

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When you think of a film called The Gambler, your mind may automatically go to the 1974 classic that starred James Caan. It’s totally understandable, as you may not even have known that they remade this movie with Mark Wahlberg in the lead, supported by his notable cast which includes actresses Jessica Lange and Brie Larson. It’s completely understandable, considering that this new 2014 film remake doesn’t really hold a candle to the movie that preceded it. In this review, I will examine this remake of The Gambler and see where it all went wrong following a formula that should have guaranteed it as a sure hit.

The Gambler’s remake follows the story of literature professor Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg), who also happens to be addicted to gambling thanks to his somewhat black-and-white and borderline nihilistic worldview. (He believes that life is simply all or nothing.)

Bennett owes a lot of people a lot of money, including a loan shark and the owner of an underground gambling scene. Lee, the owner of the gambling ring, threatens Bennett with death if he does not pay his debts to him in seven days. Meanwhile, Bennett’s grandfather dies and leaves him as the successor of his estate.

In Bennett’s classes, he sees one of his students, Amy Philips, who’s also moonlighting as a waitress in the gambling den he frequents as having some great writing talent. Amy ends up having personal feelings for Bennett. Another student of his, Lamar Allen, is a talented basketball player who dreams of going to the NBA, but doesn’t do well in class. Bennett tries to borrow money from his wealthy mother Roberta (played by Jessica Lange), but she refuses to lend him any more. He also tries to borrow from another loan shark Frank (played by John Goodman), but ends up not pushing through with it after Frank tries to make him admit that he isn’t a man. Roberta ends up loaning her son the money, but Bennett ends up gambling it all away instead of just paying off his debts to the loan sharks.

The first loan shark that Bennett owes money to kidnaps him and beats him up into going along with a plan to convince Lamar to commit point-shaving in one of his college games; if not, he will murder Amy. This finally forces Bennett to go to Frank and ask him for money, which allows him to play again in the underground gambling ring to try and win enough money to pay off both his debts. Bennett manages to bribe Lamar to shave points off his game to manage to pay off the loan shark.

In one last play, Bennett asks the owner of the gambling ring and Frank to meet him at another neutral gambling den, where he bets enough money to pay both men off if he wins a game of roulette. He does so, pays both his creditors off, and finally frees himself from their hold and any obligations he has with them.

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This review will judge the new movie by comparing it to the first film. The two Gambler films are markedly different in style and treatment, not least because they were made in two different eras. (Of course they’d be different movies.)

It’s just a testament to how much this era of filmmaking places a premium on the slick and gritty story. Where the version of The Gambler released in the ’70s was just as an interesting–yet still somewhat innocent, warm, and tame–a look into the mind of a compulsive gambler, the 2014 version of the film is unapologetic about its violence and recklessness.

Check out the trailer for the remake, which seems to treat heavy debt and threat of physical injury (and death) like a rock and roll trip:

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This remake of The Gambler changes a few names and adds a few characters to the cast here and there, but retains pretty much the same structure of the first film’s plot, only adding a couple more loan sharks into the mix. The basketball star plot point is still there, but the newer movie would rather take a turn for the more complex where the older film made a subtle psychological point about the nature of the protagonist. The 2014 version concluded in a happy ending that was simple in its joy: Bennett ends up somewhat overcoming the hold his addiction had on him by, ironically, making one last gamble in a heated climax. Easy to review, unlike how Axel Freed, the character played by James Canaan in the 1974 version, found thrill in the dangers and risks of life brought about by gambling into them.

Going a little more on the nose when it comes to the film’s approach may be what led to the newer Gambler‘s spate of lackluster reviews. It just wants to be an action drama based on gambling and casinos, and that much you can get from the trailer alone. There is still some introspection into his character (thanks mostly to the strength of its supporting cast that reviews loved, especially John Goodman and Jessica Lange, two people in the cast who play characters that lend Bennett money) but it all ends up being trite and played out, offering nothing new or truly compelling into what makes a man addicted to gambling. Or what he’ll do to fix the damage he’s made in the wake of his addictions.

If you’re reading this review to figure out whether you should watch The Gambler, then I’m afraid I must leave the decision all up to you. Reception and professional reviews of the film are split, and understandably so: the script is dazzling and wonderful in some points, but for the rest of those points, they’re rather lackluster, to be honest. It’s not a terrible movie to spend your time on, but for action dramas with a little dash of psychoanalysis, you could probably do better.

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