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A Winner In Every Sense...,
This review is from: The Gambler (DVD)
Veteran legendary actor James Caan was at his peak 10 years into his on-screen career in this James Toback classic. Director Karel Reisz gets one of Caan's most convincing performances to date, as well as terrific support from the rest of this well recognized ensemble cast.
Caan plays Axel Freed, an English Lit professor, who comes from a well-to-do family. Although Axel has success in his career and a beautiful, but detached girlfriend played by70s covergirl Lauren Hutton, he's looking for something far LESS out of life. He is a hopeless gambling junkie. Caan is so terrific and tragic as a man who can't control himself in the face of any kind of risky wager. He'll take the worst odds, never quit while he's ahead, and certainly NEVER knows when to fold 'em. Axel seems to be happiest as the loser ironically, because he never keeps his winnings, just wagering again until the profit is lost.
Paul Sorvino, another veteran talent is in a very early role here as "Hips", Axel's bookie. Hips has done just about everything he can do to convince Axel of his self-destructive habit, but to no avail. In a terrific scene, Axel gets a good look at his future, as he is sent to collect a debt from a deadbeat with an enforcer played by real life buddy, Burt Young, more famous for being "Rocky" brother-in-law. Axel watches as the deadbeat has his furnishings demolished by an abusive Young, and gets a solid working over culminating in some broken bones. Does this spell the future for Axel? You have to see for yourself.
James Caan has never looked so good, or played such a gut-wrenching role. The scene where he's sitting in his bathtub listening to a game he's got a crucial bet on, causes you to actually feel his desperation. We are not so sure he actually wants to win though. He seems to crave the humiliation of being the loser more than the victory of being a winner. He even humiliates himself in front of his students by trying to fix a college basketball game, to pay yet another debt he's accrued.
Besides Sorvino, Hutton, and Young, there are also other classic screen veterans to catch in small roles. When Caan pleads with his doctor mom to give him her savings, they deal with the terrific James Woods, as a banker who asks for one too many forms of ID. Vic Tayback is seen as well.
If you are a James Caan fan, as I am, and you want to see an example of some of his finest dramatic work, I highly recommend "The Gambler" as well as his subsequent 1981 Michael Mann classic "Thief" (see my review) as two of my favorites in his vast filmography. For comedy, Caan is classic as ANOTHER gambler in the hilarious "Honeymoon In Vegas"(see my review for more).
"The Gambler" is without doubt, one of the finest dramatizations of the degradation, the hopelessness, the fleeting thrill, and the moral bankruptcy that awaits any individual with this addiction. We as viewers will become hooked on this amazing story, but, unlike Axel Freed, we will gain from this experience, with nothing to lose.