In Rupert Wyatt's highball-cool reworking of Karel Reisz's 1974 The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg does not play a cop, does not shoot bad guys with a gun, and does not spend considerable time shirtless (though we do see him sulking in a bathtub, and there's a fleeting wet T-shirt moment, too). Unable to fall back on any of his trademarks, Wahlberg, playing a disillusioned literature professor who springs to life only at the gaming table, must work mostly with his eyes. Player wins.
To pay off a debt, Wahlberg's Jim turns to a number of increasingly ruthless loan sharks, beginning with cartoon soul-brother Neville Baraka (the cagey-wonderful Michael Kenneth Williams) and big-and-scary white dude Frank (John Goodman). Jessica Lange shows up, fabulously, foxtails swinging, as Jim's mom; meanwhile, Jim finds himself attracted to his brightest student, Amy, played by the breezily charming Brie Larson.
The Gambler is a polished entertainment about a raggedy subject: It's not meant as a gritty study of the tragedy compulsive gambling can wreak on human lives, but as a fantasy about an obsessive risk-taker who kicks the habit by kicking the stakes sky-high — and by falling in love with a woman who wants him to be the best version of himself he can possibly be, whatever that is. In other words, the pleasures offered by The Gambler are simple, but don't hold that against it. Wyatt, director of the 2011 surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, brings some bristly, swaggering energy to the thing, and that in turn may have loosened Wahlberg up: He's both more intense and freer than he's been in years.