It’s called “The Gambler,” but any similarity to Karel Reisz’s 1974 film starring James Caan ends there. The updated version, opening here on Christmas, is helmed by British director Rupert Wyatt with a screenplay by Dorchester-born writer William Monahan and a big-name cast led by Mark Wahlberg.
“Karel Reisz is underappreciated; I loved ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain,’ ” says Wyatt, referring to the Czech-born British director’s 1978 film. “I knew James Toback [who wrote the 1974 script] and I like his documentaries, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with the original film. I don’t have Toback’s gambling history and [the 1974 film] was based on Toback’s life. I wanted to come at it from a different perspective.
“I saw it as aspirational,” Wyatt said recently in Boston, where he was promoting the film. “It’s not about addiction the way the original is. Bill wrote about a guy who uses gambling as a way to get out of the gilded cage he finds himself in. It’s actually hopeful.”
Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor of literature whose gambling obsession takes him from high-stakes poker tables to underground betting in Los Angeles’s Korea town. To pay his debts, he borrows money from his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange) and a colorful loan shark (John Goodman). Taking another personal risk, his life is further complicated by a relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson).
With a strong indie debut, the British prison thriller “The Escapist” (2008), starring Brian Cox and Damian Lewis, and a big studio hit, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), to his credit, Wyatt was well-positioned for his next project. “I could have done anything I wanted in terms of the tentpole world, but that’s not what I wanted to do,” he says. “I started to read others’ scripts. Bill’s came along and I fell in love with it. Like ‘Apes,’ I knew how to find my way into the story. Mark came with the project, so that was great.”
It was Irwin Winkler, who produced the 1974 film, who brought the idea to Monahan, who won an Oscar for adapting “The Departed” (2006) for Martin Scorsese. Monahan, who lives on the North Shore, prides himself on providing his own angle, a “fresh start” to movie adaptations. “The Departed,” after all, bears little resemblance to its source, the 2002 Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs.” So it’s little surprise that he dismisses Toback’s grousing in the press that “The Gambler” is neither a sequel nor a proper remake.
“The Toback film came out when I was 13. I never saw the whole thing; sports gambling didn’t interest me. When you write adaptations, you have to protect yourself from the original and anything that might be successful in it,” he says. “I don’t want to be unkind, but ‘The Departed’ came out less than a decade ago and won four Oscars. It takes a special kind of guy to still be talking about something he wrote 45 years ago.”
“The Gambler” reunites Monahan with “Departed” star Wahlberg. The pair has also teamed for the upcoming “American Desperado,” which Monahan adapted from the book “American Desperado: My Life — From Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset” by Evan Wright and Jon Roberts. It’s scheduled for a fall release.
“I love this guy and hope to work with him many, many times,” says Monahan.
Their shared sense of place is undoubtedly part of the attraction. Walhberg is comfortable with Monahan’s vernacular, which is rooted in Boston’s working-class Irish. Though the new “Gambler” is set in LA, unlike the ’74 version set on the East Coast, it still reflects Monahan’s ease with lyrical tough talk.
“My stock-in-trade is my ear and that functions wherever I go,” he says. “I was living in LA when I wrote [“The Gambler”]. I liked the warm weather but I prefer to be in New England. I went through an LA phase but I could never really be at home there. I’d feel like I was losing my edge.”
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.