Guestwriter: Mark Wahlberg gambles on Jim Bennett role

Today I’d like to share with you an interesting guest article that was proposed to me courtesy of Christine Lindon, representing an England-based marketing company, Wise Marketing. Earlier this year I had posted a review of Mark Wahlberg’s then-latest film, the Rupert Wyatt-directed drama The Gambler. Given that Wahlberg is currently promoting a brand new comedy this weekend, Ted 2 (an important sequel, right. . . ?) this spotlight on Wahlberg is perfectly timed. I’d like to thank Christine for reaching out to me, and Amanda Cole for the write-up.

For actors that are renowned for being typecast in action movies and slapstick comedies, getting the proverbial monkey off their back can be challenging. Arguably, some don’t help their case but in Hollywood, nothing is as pleasant as it may seem.

When Mark Wahlberg made his screen debut in the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries alongside Leonardo DiCaprio he was already trying to shed his previous Marky Mark moniker that he acquired from his days as a model and rapper-of-sorts. Regardless of a sterling performance alongside a stellar cast of fledgling actors, it was evident it would take a lot of time for Wahlberg to leave his past behind.

Fast-forward 20 years and the Hollywood mainstay is still struggling to convince critics of his validity as a serious actor. However, if you dig deep and sift through the many films he’s featured in, there are notable performances in there: Lone Survivor, Shooter and his most recent The Gambler. But unfortunately industry hacks always remind the common reader of films such as 2 Guns, Planet of the Apes, Three Kings and the risqué Boogie Nights.

He’s also made forays into work behind the camera most notably co-producing the phenomenally successful Boardwalk Empire, which received a multitude of awards during its 5 seasons on network television. Though he seldom receives the praise he should.

However, probably his biggest gamble of late was with the remake of the 1974 classic The Gambler, which originally starred the revered James Caan. Wahlberg adopted the role of suave yet ultimately flawed English professor Jim Bennett. Rolling Stone reveals that he prepared for the role by eating less than usual and playing a lot of Texas Hold‘em, which Betfair describes as one of the most action-packed and prestigious poker variants. It was a different role than we’ve become accustomed to Wahlberg taking on, yet he executed it with consummate ease.

Paramount Pictures invested heavily in the film and also forecasted sizeable revenues from the film – something that never materialized. The film cost the production company a reported $25 million to make with it only recouping $33 million globally. Paramount had originally projected that they would make $25 million in the first week of the film’s release but this didn’t happen due to stiff competition at the latter part of 2014 from The Hobbit and Into the Woods.

So, with The Gambler being deemed a flop due its Box Office ratings, how did Wahlberg fare after the film’s release? Surprisingly well, and this praise was duly warranted. Wahlberg’s portrayal of the wistful and charismatic Bennett was a splendor to watch among an altogether lackluster performance from his supporting cast that included the portly John Goodman.

It was a role that Wahlberg was able to flex his acting muscles as opposed to his physique for once. A role that director Rupert Wyatt thought was ideal for Wahlberg and he proved his peer right.

Mark Wahlberg and Michael Kenneth Williams in ‘The Gambler’

But why didn’t the film live up to expectations? It’s strange because there’s obviously a market for it as gambling on a whole is still widespread even in the United States. Although online casinos don’t operate in all 50 states because of the Black Friday closures, it still commands large revenue streams. Although many are now prohibited in the United States, the online industry is still worth $9.3 billion annually. Poker is as popular as it has ever been, as is Las Vegas jaunts with Sin City welcoming 41 million people in 2014 to visit.

The stats don’t lie that there’s a market for a film like The Gambler but the films that have been released in this niche pose the issue. Casino films haven’t performed well at the Box Office for a considerable amount of time. Ben Affleck’s Runner Runner or the indie Poker Night featuring Ron Perlman are all examples of this. There’s even the 2015 flick, Wild Card, featuring Jason Statham that made a meager $3,000. So, it’s not a surprise that producers and actors like Wahlberg are thinking twice about venturing into this niche of films.

So, did the gamble pay off for Wahlberg? It definitely didn’t win him any fans at Paramount because of the poor return on investment. But you could definitely lodge a serious argument that the sniggers from industry critics could be put on ice for a while.


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The Gambler

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Release: Christmas Day 2014

[Theater]

Written by: William Monahan

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Huh. So that’s what it feels like to be completely ripped off by a movie.

I mean, completely. Like, I know it’s dumb to go all-in on a movie that has received so little attention and marketing for something that features the likes of Marky-Mark, the great John Goodman and a rising star in Brie Larson, but come on. Am I this much of a sucker? I just bought into a game that keeps on taking without ever giving back. I hate the dealer. Dealer always wins.

The lovable Mark Wahlberg drops 61 pounds (!) in order to get into the depraved character of Jim Bennett, some twit who spends his nights gambling and his days professing his love for literary genius in front of a bunch of disinterested college students. The legit job is the one he enjoys less, though he does enjoy holding this appreciation for elite novelists over his students, wielding his intellectual superiority as if it were some shield designed to protect him from the stabbings of his accusers, those who don’t give a shit about English lit. But as Rupert Wyatt is about to explain, there are better tools for Jim to rail against society with.

Like a gambling addiction! In my mind, shelling out one’s salary on a game of Black Jack on a regular basis, only to lose more often than win, constitutes a legitimate disease, and Wahlberg’s Jim is very sick. For nearly two hours he seems to acknowledge all the ways in which this lifestyle is wrong for him and yet continues to revel in it as he sinks into almost insurmountable debt, eventually having to be staked by the shadiest player in the room, some crazy named Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) just so he can play his way out of his predicament. His actions throughout this entire film reveal a man who is not only incapable of change, but immune to it. I openly embrace characters who are severely flawed; there’d be virtually no entertainment business (or compelling literature) without them. I also don’t much mind when they aren’t dealt detailed development, so long as the lack of character development doesn’t take away from the ultimate experience.

Jim Bennett could have gotten into a three-way with Brie Larson’s Amy Phillips and his own mother (Jessica Lange) and still failed to find the motivation to change his ways. And that scene might have actually been interesting. But The Gambler insists on impressing (I’m wondering if depressing is an appropriate synonym here) those who have gambled their way into the theater with how much it enjoys the smell of its own stagnation. Jim goes from owing money to the charismatic Neville, to convincing Asian mafia — there’s always a higher power to answer to — that he’s worth their trouble, to taking a trip to the bank with mom for a casual $240,000 withdrawal. That’ll be in cash, please.

And that’s of course before he comes up against the film’s actual threat, a nakeder-than-life John Goodman as Frank and his tough-guy “cabbie”/right-hand man Big Ernie (Domenick Lombardozzi). Excluding Larson, who is woefully neglected in a role that reduces her to eying Marky-Mark’s character rather than becoming a flesh-and-blood character (Larson is far more effective as a texting addict in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s amusing Don Jon), supporting performances feel inspired. Inspired to the point where the supporting roles outweigh Wahlberg’s. When you have supporting roles more memorable than that of your lead, particularly when the lead comes in the form of a major player like Mark Wahlberg, you have a problem.

So I came out on the losing end here. That’s alright; the dealer wasn’t my type anyway. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned here, and I know for a fact there are a few things to become fixated on in Wyatt’s overhauling of the apparently far superior 1974 thriller with James Caan. Things like the fact that while Jim Bennett remains a perpetual screw-up, he attracts the attention of beautiful women like April. Nonsensical. The phenomenon of how we always buy into the star power of Mark Wahlberg without thinking for a second about the material that will surround him.

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Naked & sweaty man-date with John Goodman

2-0Recommendation: The Gambler turns out to be a thriller without the thrills; merely a good-looking production lacking much in the way of originality, enthusiasm or particularly strong acting. Though the latter is much less of an issue, the repetition of Jim Bennett’s gambling problem becomes more than a little wearisome as this story doesn’t force any action or compelling reason to stick by his side. Wahlberg is likable, sure, but this character — and this very disappointing film — are not so much. I do not really recommend.

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Casino Royale (2006)

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. . .as if it was going to be anything else! Or maybe the choice isn’t as obvious as I think it is. Despite the fact that 2006 doesn’t seem like much of a ‘throwback,’ per se, and that I just sent in a Guest List for the 007 Best Moments in this very film to The Cinema Monster, this still feels like one of the ultimate James Bond films.  . . a natural and perfect way to cap off a month of James Bond Throwbacks. Disagree? Well then you can do what the Puritans did: get the eff out! 😀 😀

In the spirit of getting out, indeed that is what happens today: out with the old and in with the new; a brand-spanking new style and tone to a franchise long since in decay with the advent of simply over-the-top technological devices and crummier and crummier stories. Much as I don’t want to call Brosnan one of the worst, he certainly had the unfortunate luck of being surrounded by some of the poorest material to date. 

Today’s food for thought: Casino Royale

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Status Active: November 17, 2006

[Theater]

Mission Briefing: Fresh off an assignment in which he must eliminate two targets in order to achieve double-0 status, Bond is now faced with the prospect of tracking down Le Chiffre, a cunning and merciless terrorist financier whose grip on the black market grows more powerful with each passing second. A high-stakes poker game set up in Montenegro will be Bond’s best chance of outwitting the dangerous man.

Mission Support: 

  • Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) — fiercely intelligent and every bit as poetically disdainful as the young, trigger-happy 007; represents the British treasury and keeps a watchful eye over Bond in the poker game; a close friend of 007 but whose true identity may not be entirely trusted
  • René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) — 007’s Montenegro contact and a shady fellow, also not to be entirely trusted; approach with caution
  • Solange (Caterina Murino) — girlfriend of Le Chiffre henchman Alex Dimitrios; possible distraction who could be in possession of some useful information; interrogate using any means necessary
  • Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) — American agent on behalf of the CIA
  • Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) — sinister second-tier threat to operations leaders, but is a known associate of Le Chiffre; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) — financier to several of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and a mathematical genius who likes to prove it playing his hand at cards; cold and emotionless, he is an excellent calculator of human behavior and persistent at getting what he wants; must be stopped at all costs
  • Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) — liaison for third-party organization whose identity is not yet identified; at this time MI6 holds Le Chiffre in higher priority than Mr. White, but he is nonetheless a figure of significance; approach with extreme prejudice

Q Branch: [ERROR – file missing]

Performance Evaluation: As if to give the Bond of old a mercy kill with this necessary re-booting of Britain’s most dangerous spy, director Martin Campbell set his sights on recapturing the cold steely pain of James Bond, bastard child and loyal protector of England. His selection of Daniel Craig and decision to dispense with much of the cheese that was beginning to bog the films down, were key in distinguishing Casino Royale as a truly compelling recounting of how Bond was born.

Not only does he wear the single-breasted Brioni dinner jacket — as noted by a certain perceptive British treasurer — with a level of disdain we aren’t used to witnessing before, but Craig’s willingness to sacrifice his body effects determination and aggression more in line with what readers of the beloved novels have consistently expected and even more consistently been denied. Not to mention, screenwriters smartly take advantage of contemporary issues such as post-September 11 paranoias and use them to champion relevance and gravitas that’s more convincing than Bond’s previous scuffles with the Soviets.

As Bond takes it upon himself to insert himself into the Bahamas and other exotic locales in an effort to track down MI6’s latest target, the man known as Le Chiffre, a brilliant and determined banker who earns his riches by funding global terrorism. Because he’s fresh on the job, M (played by Judi Dench in one of the film’s more frustrating yet ultimately understandable moves) finds herself with her hands full as she attempts to keep tabs on her fledgling 00 agent. Packed with spectacular action sequences — the opening parkour scene is particularly memorable — perhaps never more exotic locations, and possessing a refreshing level of vitality for both the character and the franchise, Casino Royale has managed to overcome the wave of skepticism initially facing it by delivering one of the sexiest and most thrilling installments yet.

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5-0Recommendation: It’s funny thinking back on the controversy surrounding the casting of Daniel Craig now, as he has continued to make the role his own ever since, following up this solid performance with equally convincing turns in Quantum of Solace and of course, most recently in Skyfall. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea; he’s certainly more callous than Brosnan and more physical and possibly more brutal than Connery, but it’s difficult to imagine the series persisting had it not been for Craig’s introduction. This first outing for him finds the spy at his most vulnerable. Anyone a fan of the books is sure to find great enjoyment in watching him develop here. Not to mention, this film suits fans of solid action films. They don’t get much better than this.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted:  “All right. . .by the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn’t come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means that you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity: hence that chip on your shoulder. And since your first thought about me ran to orphan, that’s what I’d say you are. Oh, you are? I like this poker thing. And that makes perfect sense! Since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men, who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know. . .former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches.”

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Runner Runner

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Release: Friday, October 4, 2013

[Theater]

WRITTEN BY KEVIN HITE

Runner Runner is a film that was meant for gambling enthusiasts and ultimately appeals to. . .well, just about no one. The film, in fairness, was probably a good idea. The standard gambling film of the past few decades has concerned either basement-style high stakes poker (as in Rounders) or the glitzy scenes of Las Vegas card tables (as in 21). However, gambling in everyday life has shifted enormously in this span, and now concerns a consumer audience focused largely on Internet gaming.

Internet poker has been a major industry for well over a decade at this point, but the online gambling industry has shifted enormously in recent years, to the point at which online casinos now offer, in a sense, the fully experience. For example, the industry has progressed from crude online poker environments to the Intercasino format, which essentially consists of a full range of arcade and slot machine games, in addition to standard card options. These days, when we visit an Internet casino, we aren’t just looking for simulated poker — we’re looking for the full experience of Las Vegas, from the comforts of our own home. 

It’s this idea that Runner Runner attempts to play off of, not only via the scope of its fictional Internet casino, but through the weighty significance attached to its gambling risks. Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is not just an Ivy League online poker genius – he’s one who’s so thoroughly engaged with his hobby that he earns the attention of the scheming masterminds behind the websites. And when Furst feels that those same masterminds have ripped him off, he demands a meeting. 

From there, Runner Runner is essentially a slippery slope, from a gambling film looking to capture the modern culture of gaming, to a sort of crime thriller you don’t really see coming until it’s upon you. Furst burrows his way into trouble until he secures a meeting with Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the yacht-toting criminal genius behind a sketchy online gaming empire who, you know, feeds his enemies to ravenous crocodiles and whatnot. 

Here the film makes a turn that’s actually somewhat interesting. Instead of fully denying that his site cheated Furst, Block invites a partnership, suggesting that Furst is too smart to walk away from the opportunity, and tempting him with the riches and glamorous lifestyle associated with running a crooked online gaming empire. This is where the real dilemma ensues: will Furst, a needy student in over his head but incredibly adept with numbers, strike it rich helping Block run his empire? Or will he ultimately cooperate with the FBI unit attempting to bring Block down? This is the question viewers are meant to ask throughout the second half of the film, and frankly it’s all abrupt and convoluted enough that we don’t really care what the answer is. 

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1-5Recommendation: There’s one, and only one reason to check out Runner Runner: if you’re buying into Ben Affleck’s career evolution over the better part of the last decade, go ahead and give it a look. The film is poorly conceived, devoid of substance in its attempt to be sexy, and ultimately just a bit dull. Furthermore, Timberlake delivers a disappointingly stale (for those who enjoyed him in The Social Network) performance that sort of sours the film, though it’s really more the script’s fault than his. But Affleck is a bright spot in the film, establishing himself delightfully as a dick-ish gaming titan who somehow manages to be exuberant and bored at once. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 minutes

Quoted: “Everyone gambles. They may call it something else, like the stock market, or real estate. But make no mistake, if you’re risking something, you’re gambling. And if you’re gambling, then I’m the guy you want to see.”

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