xXx: Return of Xander Cage
The last forty minutes of the movie do come together in a pretty diverting way.
“The Gambler” should have been called “Three Supporting Characters in Search of a Lead.” A gaunt Mark Wahlberg stares out from the poster, his name is above the title, and he’s in almost every frame of this remake, but his character may as well be non-existent. In scenes with Michael K. Williams, John Goodman and Alvin Ing, Wahlberg evaporates into thin air. The screenplay gives him one note to play, which becomes tiresome as the minutes drag on. While that trio of actors control entire sections of the orchestra, Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett stands there waiting to ding out a note on a triangle.
This retooling of the 1974 James Caan film is completely devoid of the grit, nastiness and desperation of the Karel Reisz-James Toback original. Caan’s character was memorable because one sensed that his film might do something awful to him, or worse, that his character might self-destruct and harm himself. By comparison, the 2014 version never indicates that it will maim and/or kill risk-taker Jim Bennett. It’s too in love with his cocky, unflappable arrogance in the face of danger. No matter how dire the situation, Bennett’s escape is never in doubt. This format works well for action movies and superhero yarns; not so much for dramas.
“The Gambler” refuses to acknowledge that Bennett has a gambling addiction. It tries justifying Bennett’s actions by tying them to the existential works he teaches in his college literature class. In that class is Amy (Brie Larson, so great in “Short Term 12”), whose character description sounds like it fell out of a filing cabinet at New World Pictures: College student by day, cocktail waitress in illegal gambling den by night. She knows of Bennett’s reckless abandon with other people’s money at the casino run by Mister Lee (Ing), and I guess it turns her on or something. It’s as good an interpretation of her character as any, because Larson is given less to play here than she got in “Don Jon”.
As Bennett digs deeper holes for himself, every confrontation between him and another character plays like a “very special episode” of an 80’s sitcom. People rant and rave at Bennett, calling him on the carpet for numerous offenses and mistakes as a means of teaching him a valuable lesson. Sometimes they rough him up a bit for emphasis. Then they completely forget about teaching lessons and bend to his will. Jessica Lange, as Bennett’s super-rich Mom, slaps him around when he asks her for the $240,000 he needs to clean up his latest mess. Lange’s over-the-top chastising scene would shame Joan Crawford, but she goes to the bank to get Bennett the money anyway.