Blu-ray/DVD Review ‘The Gambler’: Ace in the Hole

gambler

It’s been many years since I’ve seen 1980 TV movie The Gambler, new on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday, Nov. 5 from Shout! Factory. But it’s hard to forget it, especially since I witnessed the filming of its final sequel.

That was 1994’s The Gambler V: Playing for Keeps, which was shot partly in Galveston. Covering the shoot for the Houston Chronicle, I interviewed star Kenny Rogers in his trailer, and we reminisced about his background as a good ol’ Houston boy and his music career’s start in the New Christy Minstrels and the vastly underrated the First Edition.

Now the original film makes its Blu-ray debut in a set which also features a DVD, neither of which has any extras. So if you already have this western, be advised the newness here is limited to the Blu-ray format.

The newness of the film itself has understandably worn off since it was a ratings success. By today’s standards it’s a gentle but lethargically paced tale with modest production values beyond a handsome vintage choo-choo and some remote southern Arizona settings which are shown off quite a bit. But the supporting cast is outstanding, and that title song (heard at the start and finish) is a winner.

In his first starring role as an actor, Rogers plays Brady Hawkes, a shrewd poker player by trade whose life is changed when he gets a letter from a son he never knew he had. (Stop me if you’d heard the plot about a father who doesn’t learn he has a son or daughter until much later in life, and then they connect.)

On his way to meet the boy (Ronnie Scribner), Hawkes encounters a ladylike woman (Lee Purcell) with a cloaked past, an enthusiastic young gambler wannabe (Bruce Boxleitner), the train’s edgy owner (Harold Gould) and various scumbag gunslingers who are sent to stop him from reaching his destination.

That’s because the mother of his child (Christine Belford) is the kept woman of cowardly big shot Rufe Bennett (Baylor University alum Clu Gulager) who’s been bested by Hawkes before and doesn’t want to take his chances again. Since Hawkes meets his son midway on the trip, the journey fixates on a rescue mission for the wayward mama, but why Rufe would be so fearful of a single man with a limp and a two-shot Derringer is a bit odd. It seems out of proportion.

Being a singer, not an actor, Rogers does what Willie Nelson did when he turned to the screen. He delivers an understated, naturalistic performance sticking close to his own persona. That makes Boxleitner seem hammy as hell with his comparative ostentation, but Purcell is superb — the best actor in the cast — as the woman they befriend.

The film isn’t about violent action, though it has some. It’s more about poker-table action in bars and on the train, and the interplay of good-hearted characters who never seem truly threatened by the bad guys.

It was popular enough to spawn four sequels, so clearly Hawkes is a durable character for Rogers to play — and play — and play. You might call him Rogers’ acting ace in the hole.

Fair enough. You’ve got to know not just when to fold ’em, but when to hold ’em. And when a network will foot the bill for five films, that’s the time.

— Bruce Westbrook

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