Caan’s “The Gambler” to be redone with Wahlberg

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First Posted: 10/21/2014

Coming off his explosive performance in “The Godfather,” James Caan delivered another terrific turn in “The Gambler” (1975, Paramount, R), a slow-burn drama about an intellectual college professor name Axel Freed who leads a double life as a compulsive risk-taker.

“The Gambler,” soon to be remade with Mark Wahlberg in the title role, is light on plot. In fact, until the final 30 minutes or so, nothing really happens in the movie except Axel crisscrosses Manhattan trying to pay off a $44,000 debt he owes his bookie pal Hips (part-time Scranton resident Paul Sorvino).

Axel begs money off of his physician-mother (Jacqueline Brooks). He hangs out with his girlfriend (Lauren Hutton). And he keeps on gambling because he’s obsessed with – take your pick – the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Even though “The Gambler” isn’t a conventional thriller, it’s absorbing from the first frame to the last. As with “California Split,” which also came out in 1975, gambling is equated with addiction. Axel needs to place bets like junkies need heroin.

While Caan dominates the film, Sorvino is enormously entertaining as a low-level thug who does his best to warn Axel that he’s getting in too deep. Sorvino is a stand-in for audience members who might wonder why Axel flails around in such a self-destructive fashion given the fact that he has a good job, a loving family and a loyal girlfriend.

Loosely based by scripter James Toback (“Bugsy”) on a novel of the same name by Dostoevsky, “The Gambler” is downbeat but involving. You will be riveted. Bet on it.