I love gambling movies. Even the bad ones. I think there’s just something about gambling as a subject matter that transitions well to film. Unlike poker, games of chance and crippling gambling addiction appear to be much easier for the average filmmaker to understand. I think there’s something universal about risking it all and having your fate decided by chance. We all do it in one way or another.
Gambling movies come in many different forms. They can be dark or light-hearted, character-driven or action-packed. In my opinion, most of the best gambling movies can be put into two categories.
The Dark and Dirty Addiction Story
These films show the tragic side of gambling. For some, gambling can be a hobby and a source of excitement and fun. For others, it’s a drug that can ruin their life and take away everything they have.
The Gambler (1974)
My all-time favorite gambling movie and an absolute masterpiece. I’m talking specifically about the 1974 version starring the legendary badass James Caan and certainly not the 2014 Mark Wahlberg remake. The story follows a university English professor who leads a double life as an uncontrollable degenerate gambler. It’s heartbreaking and tragic with an authenticity that might hit too close to home for those who have suffered through the disease. Just an absolutely haunting film.
(A few words about the remake: It’s not a terrible movie. I wanted to hate it, but it was certainly watchable. However, Wahlberg’s performance is hollow compared to Caan’s, as the movie basically takes all of the main beats from the original without really earning them in the deeply emotional way of it’s predecessor.)
Owning Mahowny (2003)
‘He never stops, he only wants to win so he can keep playing’
From the best movie ever made about gambling addiction, to the second best. The true story of Dan Mahowney, a Canadian banker who embezzled millions of dollars to feed his colossal gambling habit. He’s even more single-minded than James Caan’s Axel Foley, a pure gambler and nothing else. Mahowney is a gambling freight train, plowing ahead no matter what, his only desire to play the next hand.
The Casino-Centered Character Study
This category of gambling flick has less to do with crippling gambling addiction and instead uses the casino and the lifestyle therein as a motif and backdrop for classic human conflict.
The Cooler (2003)
A ‘cooler’ is one of those old school Las Vegas myths that superstitious gamblers love to believe in. Essentially, it’s a person who has such terrible luck that their presence in the casino can bring bad luck to others. In this film, William H. Macy plays such a man and is employed by a casino to walk around passing his bad luck onto unsuspecting gamblers. Equal parts dark, fun and sad, this film is certainly unique and highly worth a few hours of your life.
Hard Eight (1996)
“I know three types of karate: jiu jitsi, akido and regular karate”
The first full length feature film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) Weird and dark character study which beautifully depicts the cigarette smoke-filled gloom and desperation of a Las Vegas casino. This film is dialogue-drive and mesmerizing, with a delightfully mysterious main character played by Philip Baker Hall and excellent performances by John C. Reilly and a pre-fame Gwyneth Paltrow.
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