The thought of Mark Wahlberg sharing character DNA with Kenny Rogers is enough to give one pause, but let’s back up for a second. In the new film The Gambler, Wahlberg isn’t playing that gambler, the one made famous by Rogers in a country song and a 1980 TV-movie of the same name. He’s playing another gambler, one first seen in a largely forgotten 1974 film starring James Caan (the original is currently on Netflix Streaming but is slated to be yanked soon).
This remake finds Wahlberg ably filling the role with a bravura performance, one that substitutes Caan’s low-simmer cool with a high-level intensity. Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor whose bad habit of placing gargantuan bets in gambling dens has left him tens of thousands of dollars in debt. His icy mom (Jessica Lange), a loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) and an underworld kingpin (John Goodman) all consider fronting him money, but whatever funds come his way end up being used not to pay off debts but blown on more blackjack hands and roulette wheels.
Gambling as an addiction isn’t the focus here – this isn’t Leaving Las Vegas with playing cards replacing the booze bottles – which is fine since the film is content operating as a tightly wound drama about a man with self-destructive impulses. Yet this isn’t really a character study, either, since we’re never allowed to get inside Bennett’s head. That leaves only the melodramatic tension, which dissipates as the movie limps toward a disappointing conclusion that feels committee-driven rather than narratively sound. That’s too bad, because a movie that displays a winning hand for most of its length should never turn up snake eyes at the end.