Spoiler Alert: This Isn’t Just About the Gambler

Don’t get me wrong, The Gambler (Rupert Wyatt 2014) is a good, eminently watchable film. Its depiction of a self-destructive personality in free-fall is crisply well made. The film is sharply photographed, beautifully paced, competently acted and it boasts a great soundtrack.

The plot is darkly compelling with some nicely delivered undercurrents and all in all it has a lot going for it. But for all those plus points there is still one big issue with the film that no amount of positive reflection is going to disguise.

And since you ask, it’s not just a problem with The Gambler. You could make the same complaints about Psycho, Clash of The Titans, Arthur, Conan the Barbarian, The Hustler… there is a whole mini -industry on the subject of dud remakes and follow-ups.

The thing with The Gambler – and most of these remakes – is that there’s a perfectly good, and grittily classic version of this film already out there. Karel Reisz’s 1974 film of the same title realised the full depth of James Caan’s on-screen repertoire, and – and this is not what you’re supposed to say in 2015 – it was better. It was better because it was less smooth, less kind on the viewer. The musical mood cues and segues between scenes weren’t quite so obvious and there was something underplayed, unresolved and so more authentic in the lead’s performance than Mark Wahlberg is allowed to be or (as some have suggested) is capable of being in the remake. Edginess isn’t something you can mass produce.

Maybe we’re being unkind. Maybe the passage of time has done less for the remake than the original. We’ve seen so many casino-themed, gambling-fuelled movie dramas that perhaps we know them too well. Indeed, why not test your casino movie knowledge. You might be surprised with how well you know the genre!

Even something as well received as The Color of Money – strictly a sequel rather than a remake, but let’s not split hairs – doesn’t stand up so well to the original Hustler that it derives from. Paul Newman is common to both and you’d have to be pretty brave to suggest that Martin Scorsese didn’t do a great job behind the camera. But if you watch the two together, there is only ever one winner.

The idea of art – its definition even – is that it is something capable of making you see the world in a different way. The brittle authenticity of the 1974 version of The Gambler did that, just like the Hustler did in 1961. The sad truth is that the 21st century remake versions don’t. They just remind you that someone’s already done it. Maybe it’s the way the film industry has developed but in both cases it feels like everyone involved has played it safe, produced to order, and held their poses just long enough to be able to walk away with the cheque. Certainly – and fatally – there is no sense of anyone involved having gone anywhere near taking an authentic gamble. Maybe that’s what made those old films so much more visceral and such cinematically life-changing experiences.

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