The Gambler review: Prof Mark Walhberg’s got a brand new bag

The Gambler
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Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson
Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins

Rupert Wyatt, who broke through with The Escapist and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directs Mark Wahlberg in this remake of a 1974 drama written by James Toback. If you didn't know as much before, you'll know it soon enough. From the tight framing to the grotty streets and cutthroat alleyways, The Gambler affects the jaded swagger of post-classical Hollywood.

In common with much of the Easy Rider/Raging Bull milieu, the film wears literary influences, talks a good existentialist game and features an antihero with a death wish. A loose adaptation of a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this new rendition is rather less sleazy than its 1974 equivalent, but it does feature scenes of unfettered gumshoe masculinity: "Tell me you hit your wife harder than that?" smart-mouths Wahlberg at one of various thugs out to get him.

By now, Wahlberg has earned his stripes across a variety of genres. Yet watching him lecture about "upstart crow" Shakespeare is a whole new bag. Mostly, Wahlberg's college professor spends his lectures berating students for "wasting their parents' money", but with less swearing than he might have used in The Departed.

He’s one to talk. Less than 20 minutes into the run time, he owes various mobsters a quarter of a million bucks. Will his rich mommy (Lange) help him out? Will a talented young student (Brie Larson) prove to be his salvation?

Between hardboiled snatches of dialogue (“Physiology doesn’t lie, everything else does”), this intellectualised depiction of rock bottom feeds us bits of Camus and much world-weariness. The lowest of lives speak articulately and knowledgably. The entire cast is gifted hunks of chewable dialogue.

And that's fine: newcomer Anthony Kelley does sterling work as a compromised basketball star. Larson, the star of Lenny Abrahamson's incoming Room, remains likeable in a role that could easily have turned shrill. Michael K Williams makes for a charming hoodlum.

For all that, The Gambler feels academic and slightly out of time. It doesn't help that it's released in the same week as JC Chandor's A Most Dangerous Year, a film that manages to be a little bit Godfather, a little bit Macbeth and a whole lot of Sidney Lumet, while striking an original pose.

You know how it goes . . . you wait for ages for a 1970s-style thriller, then two come along at once.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic