Outspoken English professor and unremarkable novelist Jim Miller (Wahlberg) is a gambling addict. He has just seven days to pay back $240,000 to a casino boss. So, obviously, he goes gambling again.
A remake of Karel Reisz’s downbeat under the radar ‘70s classic starring a post Godfather James Caan, The Gambler is at heart about an intelligent man who can only feel alive by risking everything on an ill-considered punt. Director Rupert Wyatt and star Mark Wahlberg, a pair united by Planet Of The Apes re-dos, have taken the theme if not the mood of the ’74 original and created an enjoyable, slick if slightly hollow update.
Wahlberg’s casting as any kind of English professor may rank as the unlikeliest since John Wayne played Genghis Khan but he makes a good fist of inhabiting a higher minded intellectual life in tandem with his self destructive gambling impulses. The actor has a track record at interpreting screenwriter William Monaghan smart, terse dialogue — think of Wahlberg’s blistering turn in The Departed — and early doors, he has a terrific scene lecturing his wannabe writing students about the pitfalls of mediocrity (“If you are not a genius, don’t bother”). But in the end the character doesn’t deepen or develop. Monaghan also creates potentially interesting roles for Brie Larson (a Grade A student who falls in with Wahlberg) and John Goodman (a bald loan shark) but again the movie never really figures out what to do with them.
Wyatt’s direction is brisk, efficient, with the odd moment of brilliance (time-lapse gambling) and a great ear for tuneage, ranging from Dylan, Chopin, Pulp to a terrific use of Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth. He also gets effective atmosphere out of the unusual world of LA's Asian gambling dens. Yet what he doesn’t really do is inject Miller’s predicament with a sense of dread or feeling. BIG numbers count down the time to payback day but there is little in the way of tension or suspense. And in the end, it’s hard to connect with a smart man who time and again flushes easy get-outs down the toilet.
A rare grown up thriller, full of interesting bits and a strong turn from Wahlberg. But as a whole Wyatts film doesnt grip as it might.