In only one movie could a certain man combine the sheer coolness of Steve McQueen with the silent, steely eyed stare of Clint Eastwood and 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. But you probably knew that already.
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 led 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 said son asking 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 (played with cardboard charisma by 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. She 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 track 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. There's one thing that Rufe isn't counting on though, and that's that 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, because Kenny Rogers makes it gold… so long as you're one who can appreciate Kenny's unusually relaxed acting style (which is basically not an acting style at all).
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, it's safe to assume), and on that level the movie is pretty successful.
Previous DVD versions of The Gambler were presented in fullframe but this Blu-ray release is offered up in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. Detail is considerably improved over the DVD releases but some mild print damage is present throughout and there's some sort of color fading that is evident in that a lot of the movie has a slightly red tint to it. This results in skin tones looking a little pink. Black levels are okay if never as inky deep as you would want while texture looks alright. Close up shots show off Kenny's beard nicely and you'll note some pilling in the fibers that make up the costumes worn by the various characters in the film. This transfer isn't going to floor you and it looks a little tight on the top and bottom sometimes but it's plenty watchable.
The Gambler hits Blu-ray with a decent DTS-HD 2.0 track, in English, with no alternate language dubs, subtitles, or closed captions available. As with the video presentation, it's far from perfect but it gets the job done. The limitations of the original recording show through and there is a certain flatness to a lot of the movie but the music sounds decent and you won't have any problems understanding the dialogue even if there is some hiss here and there. There's more depth here than there was on the DVD release from years back, and if you compare it to the Dolby Digital 2.0 track on the DVD included with this release, you'll notice that. Range isn't all that impressive but for an older made for TV movie, this sounds just fine.
Nothing here save for chapter selection. It's a damn shame that there's no Kenny Rogers commentary, making of documentary or isolated soundtrack option. As this is combo pack release, a DVD version is also included.
The Gambler is an essential purchase for Kenny Rogers fans and those of you out there who appreciate the wholesome hokiness that his made for TV movies offer. It makes a great double feature with an episode of two of Walker Texas Ranger and while the Blu-ray presentation here certainly leaves room for improvement, the movie holds up well. Granted, some of it is entertaining for all the wrong reasons, but it's a fun picture. Recommended for those who get a kick out of this type of stuff, a rental for the rest of the herd.
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.