Published Dec 23, 2014Movies released on Christmas Day are a funny breed and fall into one of two categories: supposedly smart pictures sneaking in under the wire for award season, and simply pleasant cinematic experiences. The Gambler, perhaps predictably, manages to be a bit of both; it's palatable enough for mainstream audiences, yet stylish enough for those who would usually turn their nose up at a remake starring Marky Mark.
The Funky Bunch frontman in question is decent, but, much like Patrick Swayze's turn as a bouncer with a PhD in philosophy before him in Road House, it's hard to take the smooth and sexy Mark Wahlberg seriously as a formerly wealthy English professor with a gambling addiction (at least James Caan, who played the lead in the 1972 incarnation with which it shares its name, was a little ugly and had that ridiculous coif). Wahlberg looks like a backing member of Bobby Gillespie's band, which was either an intentional attempt to make him seem cool or is accidentally hilarious.
Nevertheless, The Gambler seems to be less about star power, or even gambling for that matter (it plays a limited roll in the film until its latter half), and is instead a well-executed exercise in average moviemaking. The film deals with some interesting topics — including the raw beauty of gifted athletes, nature vs. nurture, and the ways in which smart people act dumb to seem average and vice versa — but succumbs to common crime drama tropes a little too easily (warring gangs separated by ancestry; guys keeping guns in freezers, etc.)
Perhaps the biggest win for moviegoers is the film's excellent cast. Michael Kenneth Williams shines (as he always does) as the smooth-talking, folk-loving businessman Neville Baraka, while John Goodman and the nearly speechless Domenick Lombardozzi are equally chilling as a pair of no-nonsense criminals. (Kudos goes to whoever convinced Goodman to film a scene topless, because nothing says "I'm going to kill you unless you give me my money" much like an aging actor threatening a man shirtless in a sauna).
The score is similarly better than average, with everybody's favourite commercial composer Jon Brion providing an ominous and effective soundtrack (although whoever decided to put M83's "Outro" in the outro should be embarrassed by how obvious a choice that was).
Still, if you're willing to take a risk on The Gambler this holiday season, you may be surprised with the results.