Damn, and the trailer looked so badass
Movies about gambling have piqued my interest since I was a little boy. I remember Mel Gibson’s role in Maverick was my induction into the genre, as well as my dad playing old western flicks where cowboys and cards went together like bread and butter. Unfortunately, with more modern depictions of gambling, notably Rounders (1998), 21 (2007) and more recently The Gambler, the drama aspect of the films have taken away from what I was more interested in, a feel for the gambling on screen.
Mark Wahlberg, The Gambler’s protagonist — I guess that makes him “the gambler” — pretty much spends the entire movie doing everything he can to ensure the audience won’t root for him to win (figuratively and literally). Unlike most anti-heros, Wahlberg’s character struggles to unveil his redeeming secondary qualities, making it difficult to ever make a real connection with him.
In the opening scene, he goes to some underground casino, changes $10,000 cash into a handful of placard chips, and heads off to a blackjack table. Agitated, he puts it all down on the first hand, and wins. He takes his winnings and stacks it into a $20,000 bet. The dealer is puzzled by this maniac blowing his load on the table, and Wahlberg — as he did to various dealers roughly ten times over the course of the movie — says something foul to him. (I’m not saying this is an important aspect of the film, but real gamblers don’t talk to dealers that way.)
For characterization purposes, though, it made sense. Wahlberg held true to his dick-ish ways for the duration.
$240,000 in debt to the “Koreans,” who are also killers — of course — the protagonist then plots for the rest of the movie to pay back his debts. He takes out a massive loan from some black guys, who are also killers, of course — the main one is played by Omar from The Wire — as well as John Goodman, who plays some sort of kingpin. Oh and his mom, who Wahlberg has a bad relationship with, too.
Anyway, much more so than being a gambler, the tension of the movie comes from his conflicts with all these various parties. To be perfectly honest, this movie shouldn’t even be called The Gambler, because it’s not a gambling movie. It’s more like Guy Puts Self In Shitty Situation And Learns Consequence For Being Lifetime Welcher.
Oh! And the best part: Mark Wahlberg is a professor. In college. He teaches Shakespeare to college kids as his job in the movie. That’s right up there with Dennis Quaid playing a paleoclimatologist in The Day After Tomorrow or James Franco as a scientist in Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the Most Believable Roles Ever category.
One of his students, a genius according to Most Believable College Professor Ever, is played by Brie Larson of 21 Jump Street fame, and if there was one reason to watch this film it’s because of her. She’s excellent, and is quickly turning into my favorite actress. She doubles as Wahlberg’s love interest, and fakes a pretty good job at it.
As a dealer, the biggest problem I had with The Gambler came when Wahlberg and Larson visited Casino Morongo. It’s funny, I actually work at a casino fifteen minutes from Morongo and I didn’t know this movie was being filmed over there. So that’s cool. Anyway, Wahlberg is being a dick to the dealer (of course), and his first hand he doubles down on hard 18. That’s just… okay never mind. But what bothered me more was how he put his chips up to bet. He changed $10,000 at a time to get more chips, but when he got the chips he just put them all up — like 4 stacks — as his bet.
In a casino, if some dude did this he would just ask for $1,000 chips — or $500 chips if that was what the casino had — and put them up in one stack. You aren’t allowed to make blackjack bets four stacks at a time; there is just one bet, stacked in one pile of chips.
Further, I know at Morongo specifically — because I was there just yesterday playing Pai-Gow and blackjack — no table ever reaches a $10,000 maximum on blackjack. Wahlberg never would have been able to place a $20,000 blackjack bet. For reference, in the high limits at Agua Caliente — where I work — the tables are all $50/$1,000 or $100/$2,000; at San Manuel, perhaps the most prominent casino in Southern California, the limits are $50/$2,000 and $100/$2,000.
I know this because I deal in the high limits where I work, and have gambled in the high limits at Morongo and San Manuel. I deal in the biggest casino in the Coachella Valley, and the other two are the biggest moneymakers of their respective cities. If The Gambler was your only reference for blackjack, you would think table maximums 2,000%, 4,000% and 8,000% above what they are in reality was the norm.
Maybe I’m nitpicking (I’m definitely nitpicking), but the gambling aspect of The Gambler was just all backwards. It might as well be Shooter or Four Brothers with a slightly different setting.
Clearly I’m a casino snob, but I have to put the reality into context. Like in Moneyball, which I didn’t like, I didn’t believe the oversimplification of what made the Oakland A’s a winning baseball team. It was not trading Carlos Pena and making converted catcher Scott Hatteberg the first baseman, and it wasn’t trading Jeremy Giambi because he was bad in the clubhouse; it was Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, who got zero mentions over the course of the film.
If I can’t buy into the casino atmosphere, the actual gambling, or the lead character who basically spends an hour and a half yelling at everybody, then it’s probably just not my bag.
As an aside the music was good, but on the whole the film just took itself way too seriously. Mark Wahlberg is a college professor. It’s not supposed to be so serious!