Everyone loves Kenny Rogers, right? Right! So it's about time that the good people at Time/Life made his insanely popular The Gambler movies available on DVD. Here's what Kenny gets up to in the three fine films contained in this set…
The Gambler (1980):
In only one movie could a certain man combine the sheer coolness of Steve McQueen with the silent, steely eyed stare of Clint Eastwood, with the unpredictability and overt sense of danger that someone like Warren Oates or maybe Oliver Reed brought to the big screen in their films before the good Lord took them from us. The movie was The Gambler and the man? Kenny Rogers.
Loosely based on the Kenny Rogers song of the same name (it won a Grammy!), this film places Rogers in the role of one Brady Hawkes, who is a high rolling gambler by trade who spends his time hanging out in El Paso. Hawkes has lead an interesting life, and the ladies have rarely been able to refuse his considerable charm. As such, he sired a son (Ronnie Scribner) years ago, though he never really got to know him until that fateful day when a letter arrived from his son asking him for his father's help.
Being the dutiful and honor bound man that he is, Brady boards a train bound for nowhere (okay, it's actually bound for somewhere, Yuma, to be precise, but you know…) where he meets a young man named Billy Montana (Bruce Boxleitner of Tron). They take turns staring through the window at the darkness until boredom overtakes them, at which point they begin to speak and once they start to get to know one another, they strike up a bit of a friendship.
On this train ride, Brady schools young Billy in the ways of the gambler, in the sort of teacher student way that is popular in westerns, Tonino Valerii's Day Of Anger starring Lee Van Cleef and Guiliano Gemma being a prime example. They later make the acquaintance of a lovely lady named Jennie Reed (Lee Purcell of Valley Girl), a one time whore for hire who has changed her ways and who soon enlists their help in dealing with a sinister railroad man who just won't leave her well enough alone. Once Brady and Billy take care of that problem, they get back on focus and set out to find Brady's son, not knowing that his stepfather, Rufe Bennett (Clu Gullager) is a bit of a jerk and he wants to fight Brady, but what he doesn't realize is that Brady has found an ace that he can keep…
Originally broadcast on April 8, 1980, Kenny Rogers As The Gambler was a pretty huge hit and it has since gone on to inspire four sequels (we're all keeping our fingers crossed for a fifth film, Kenny, don't let us down!). Like all great western heroes, Kenny Rogers says more with his eyes and his demeanor than he does with the limited amounts of dialogue he has in the film. His Brady Hawkes is a quiet man, he has obviously made a life out of reading people's faces, and evidently he's a man who can tell what his opponents cards are by the way they hold their eyes. He'll look you down with a steely glance and crush you with his stare, not needing to speak to you to let you know you're done for before the game has even started. It's this subtle and understated natural screen presence that makes The Gambler more than your average piece of crap made for TV movie – Kenny Rogers makes it gold.
In terms of direction and production value, again, The Gambler is better than you might expect. Some money was obviously put into making the movie and director Dick Lowry (who did Smokey And The Bandit III) does a decent job of keeping the story running smoothly during the film's ninety-four minute running time. Jim Byrnes, who has written episodes of Walker Texas Ranger, which this movie feels like a companion piece to of sorts, fills the movie with enough interesting supporting characters and sly, underhanded comedy that it works. Granted, the movie has aged and Kenny Rogers isn't the chicken slinging superstar that he was in the eighties and the early nineties but his fan base hasn't diminished and The Gambler still has its hokey charm. It might be hard to take him seriously in the role, but there's no reason why you should have to either, making this as enjoyable as a guilty pleasure as it is as an actual, serious movie. It was made with its tongue firmly in cheek, never taking itself so seriously as to alienate its target audience (that being Kenny Rogers fans, I'd guess), and on that level the movie is pretty successful.
The Gambler – The Adventure Continues (1983):
After they struck ratings gold with the first film, the same team behind the original movie reunited for another round of gamblin' action with Kenny once again in the lead role of Brady Hawkes.
When the film begins, Brady, reunited with his son Jeremiah after the events in the first movie, is thinking of hitting up a massive cards tournament where he hopes to take home the prize and show the world his gamblin' stuff. He talks Jeremiah into tagging along with him and wouldn't you know it, his pal Billy Montana (once again played by Bruce Boxleitner) opts to help him out on his journey by tagging along for the ride.
The three men board a train that should easily get them to their destination on time for Brady to plays some cards, but wouldn't you know it, their trip gets interrupted by a gang of bandits who aim to rob the good citizens. In order to ensure themselves a safe getaway, these same bandits take Jeremiah hostage, much to Brady's dismay. Good thing for him that there's a saucy female gun for hire nearby named Kate Muldoon (Linda Evans) who is only too happy to help Brady get his son back safe and sound.
Slightly stronger in the storyline department than the first film, this sequel starts off strong and actually manages to be a pretty entertaining, albeit incredibly hokey, western for its duration. When it hit the air, audiences agreed, as this one actually did better in the ratings than its predecessor, ensuring that yes, there'd be more adventures of Brady Hawkes and company down the road. Speaking of which, he look, it's…
The Gambler Part III – The Legend Continues (1987):
The third (and in this reviewer's opinion, the best) of the films in the series reunites pretty much all the cast members from the first movie and throws in a few new ones, played by an interesting cast of supporting actors, some of whom you might be shocked to see in a made for TV Kenny Rogers vehicle. Speaking of Kenny, he's a little on the rolly-polly side in this third film, not look to be at the height of his powers, but still able to punch out a bad guy or two when the need should arise.
This time around, Brady and Billy have a more noble mission than making it to a gambling tournament, though Brady makes a point of engaging in a few card games along the way, as is his nature. They get word that things are going south in the government's talks with the Sioux Indians who live in the area and so who better to get involved in the negotiations than Kenny Rogers? He can do anything he sets his mind to. At any rate, Brady and Billy head out to Sioux territory and meet up with Buffalo Bill (played by Jeffrey Jones who has recently been excellent in Deadwood!) along the way. Once they start talking to the Sioux, however, Brady and Billy realize that they've been duped and it's actually the government that is being difficult as they're trying to screw over the good Native Americans, not the other way around as 'the man' would have Brady believe.
Being the champion of justice that he is, Brady takes up the Sioux cause as his own and before you know it he and Billy are fighting alongside Sitting Bull himself to help make things right for the Sioux and to make sure that they're treated fairly but there are so1diers and corrupt government officials and guys who don't like playing cards with Brady standing in their way that will have to be dealt with first.
The plot this time out is a little more complex in that it is slightly multi-layered in spots. Kenny walks through the movie with that natural charm that is his persona and while he's not the most enthusiastic cat to ever hit the small screen, he's a likeable enough guy, even if it's hard not to giggle at him when he's fighting bad guys clad in some fine banana yellow pants. More so than other films in the series, this one features some interesting cameo roles. In addition to the aforementioned appearance from Jeffrey Jones, be on the look out for none other than Michael Berryman in a supporting role as one of the soldiers. Those who are only familiar with him from his best known role, that of Pluto from Wes Craven's original The Hills Have Eyes, might be a bit taken aback by seeing him here but when this reviewer spoke to a slightly inebriated Berryman at a fan convention about this part in 2005, Berryman assured him that they got along famously and that Kenny Rogers was honestly as nice as guy as you'd expect him to be. But wait, there's more! None other than George Kennedy of Just Before Dawn and The Delta Force pops up here as well, playing an officer in the proud United States Army. Still not convinced? Soap opera starlet extraordinaire Linda Gray has a part here too, as does none other than Colm Meany from The Commitments. Truly, this is a star studded cast, proving that only the finest may share the screen with Kenny Rogers.
Clocking in at over three hours in length as the second film did as well, this one packs in everything you'd expect from the series at this point. Goofy humor, clichéd but enjoyable characters, fisticuffs, sharp shooting, cowboys and injuns and a damsel in distress or two. It doesn't stray too far from the formula that made the first two movies so successful and by throwing in as many guest stars as it does you can play a game of 'spot the B celebrity' while enjoying Kenny's exploits.
Unfortunately for whatever reason, Time/Life opted not to include the fourth and fifth films in this set. Say what you will, but it is a shame that you can't own them all in one handy dandy collection, though they are available as a double feature DVD if you want to own them all and go to the effort of tracking them down to complete your collection of Kenny Rogers The Gambler movies – and you know you do.
Well, seeing as all of the The Gambler movies were made for TV, it's no surprise to see that they are presented fullframe for this DVD set as that's the aspect ratio that the movies were composed for. As far as the quality of the image goes, there is some grain and some dirt on the all of the prints at random intervals as well as some mild mpeg compression in a few spots but the color reproduction isn't half bad and the skin tones look alright. Some fine detail gets lost as the picture leans toward the soft side of things at times, more so in the first movie than in the two sequels, but the movies are always watchable. These are acceptable transfers, just not remarkable ones.
All three of the The Gambler films in this set hit DVD with decent Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks, in English, with no alternate language dubs, subtitles, or closed captions available. As with the video presentation, these are far from perfect but they get the job done. The limitations of the original recordings do show through and there is a certain flatness to a lot of what we hear, but the music sounds decent and you won't have any problems understanding the dialogue even if there is some hiss here and there.
Nothing here on any of the three discs in the set save for chapter selection. It's a damn shame that there's no Kenny Rogers commentary, making of documentary or isolated soundtrack option. All is not completely lost, however, as bundled inside the box is a set of Kenny Rogers playing cards, featuring his steely-eyed stare on the back of each and every card in the deck.
As hokey as they come, the three films in this set are still a lot of fun and while Kenny's not going to take home an Oscar anytime soon, you can't help but like the guy. While the lack of extras is a true shame, and the presentations could have been better, this set is available at a very fair price and you get a lot of viewing bang for your back, which makes the Legend Of The Gambler boxed set an easy recommendation.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.