- Directed by Dick Lowry
- April 8, 1980
A gambler who is on his way to meet the son he never knew he had intersects with an impulsive young gambler on his way to an international tournament.
What do you do when you have a hit song? Turn it into a TV movie! Enter the movie The Gambler starring Kenny Rogers which joins such song inspired television features as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Little Drummer Boy.
The movie itself is more a fun adventure than it is something somber as the song implies. When I hear the song the movie that would spring to my mind is a man at the end of the line meeting another person who dispenses a last bit of wisdom which the receiver is able to take for a second chance. I could personally see this whole thing being told here as a series of flashbacks on a dark and lonely train-like in the song!
Instead we get a bouncy adventure with a mysterious gambler named Brady Hawkes (Kenny Rogers) whose life intersects with the young Billy Montana (Bruce Boxleitner) as his cheating pisses off a group of card players that are trying to cheat him.
Into this mix as a young woman named Jennie Reed (Lee Purcell) traveling to be with her husband. She perhaps is the more interesting of the characters as it’s revealed during the course of the film that she was not always a prim and proper lady but at one point a prostitute. This is hinted at early on though you don’t quite get why with the heavy (though not the villain) of the movie Arthur Stobridge (Harold Gould) who is the owner of the railroad knows her.
As with the song, much of The Gambler occurs during a train ride from Point A to Point B with what amounts to little side quests occurring along the way. My personal favorite was when they stopped in the creepy town and Montana, still a cocky young gambler with more guts than brains, decides to try and make a couple of bucks while the train waits so we can have a stake for the gambling championship he’s headed too.
This scene is also the first time we get to see any toughness from Brady Hawkes in the movie rather than craftiness or just general wisdom. But this scene also defines what kind of person Brady is as not only a gambler but just generally. He is calm and cool and bluffs to avoid trouble and come out on top but will get dirty when necessary.
As TV movies of the time go The Gambler is pretty good. For modern audiences though it’s a little quiet and occasionally on the safe side. I personally think the character of Brady Hawkes should’ve been there for the same reasons as Billy Montana-maybe-but even that could have been kept vague. Hawkes should have been a little more in the mold of the mysterious stranger with Billy learning from him rather than Brady needing to go meet his son and then confront local dick gambler Rufe Bennett (Clu Gulager) who still holds a grudge over a gambling loss.
Gulager was a fine actor but not right for the part of Rufe. He was more irritated principal than angry nemesis here. He would have been better as Doc Palmer whom Brady plays in a match on Stobridge’s train. This part was played by Lance LeGault who would have been a better Rufe as his voice alone conveys menace.
Aside from meeting his son Jeremiah (Ronnie Scribner) for the first time, Brady’s other mission is to save his former lover Eliza (Christine Belford) who has come under Rufe’s thumb. How? Not sure and at points Eliza and Jeremiah become afterthoughts in the story. The focus after the train reaches its destination is the confrontation with what comes before setting up that the characters are stuck and only Brady can help.
Kenny Rogers isn’t bad when it comes to Brady but he was not a polished actor and his performance can be uneven. Sometimes he lacks any real emotion to his performance other than simply reading the line. He is serviceable but not great. And my stance with Brady Hawkes being a mysterious stranger would have helped. He could have said and done little much like Ahnuld did in Conan the Barbarian yet still have been the star.
Boxleitner makes his character of Billy Montana charming yet cocky and self-assured. At the start he very much has the mentality of youth. Impulsive and brash without considering the consequences. By the end he has learned responsibility and to be less impetuous.
Though on the safe side, the script isn’t bad. The characters are charming. This isn’t anything serious but rather fun and it mostly succeeds in that. It’s a well-produced diversion and just an entertaining ride. It will leave you with some fond memories that get you to watch again.
The Gambler is a fun TV western from back in the day. It’s nothing deep or sophisticated but it is an entertaining little romp. I won’t call this a must see but I will call it a fun watch.