“There’ll be time enough for countin’, when the dealin’s done.”
For 25 years, Kenny Rogers has been closely associated with the song “The Gambler” and a recurring network television movie role based on the song. The first movie entry was The Gambler (1980) in which Rogers portrayed a gambler known as Brady Hawkes. Featured in the film was Bruce Boxleitner playing Hawkes’s friend Billy Montana. Together, the two of them helped Hawkes’s son Jeremiah out of some difficulties. The Hawkes character was a likable one, amiably played by Rogers, and the film was a substantial success. It prompted the inevitable sequel The Gambler: The Adventure Continues (1983) plus three subsequent ones at three-to-four-year intervals. The two most recent entries were The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991) and The Gambler V: Playing for Keeps (1994). Both of these are now available on a two-disc DVD from Artisan.
Beginning with the third Gambler movie (The Gambler, Part III: The Legend Continues ), the plots featured a number of real historic personages whose paths would cross that of Brady Hawkes. In The Gambler Returns, Brady has to make his way from Mexico to San Francisco guarding $100,000 which is his entry fee in what is being billed as the last poker game in America, as there is the threat of a law being passed to outlaw gambling across the country. During the course of his journey, Brady encounters the likes of Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean, Bat Masterton, and Teddy Roosevelt. In The Gambler V, Brady goes to the aid of his son Jeremiah who has gotten himself mixed up with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He also runs into Lily Langtry and Etta Place.
The success of the Gambler franchise resulted in the later editions being shown as miniseries spread over two nights with movie running times of three hours each. As a result, both of the movies in question here are somewhat flabby and episodic due to drawn-out plots and the obvious dramatic breaks to allow commercial placements. The episodic nature is most pronounced in The Gambler Returns due to an interesting plot/casting approach — the use of familiar television western players. Thus we get short segments where Chuck Connors appears as The Rifleman, Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, James Drury and Doug McClure as their characters from The Virginian, Hugh O’Brien as Wyatt Earp, Gene Barry as Bat Masterson, and so on. There’s no doubt that if you’re interested in seeing how these players all look 30 or 35 years after their original shows were on TV, The Gambler Returns will hold interest for you. The film also benefits from the appearance of Reba MacEntire as Burgundy Jones, Brady Hawkes’s backer for the big poker game.
The Gambler V actually has a better-constructed plot than its predecessor. It ties together Brady’s search for his son, the movements of the Cassidy gang, the actions of Pinkerton detectives who are on Cassidy’s trail, and a number of various locations from Fort Worth, Texas to Bolivia in a consistently interesting way. It still seems long, but a lot more of significance occurs to justify the length than in The Gambler Returns.
Despite the length issue with these films, there’s no doubt that a fair bit of effort has gone into the making of them. The casts are large and generally are composed of players who seem to have a feel for the western. The films look as though they’ve had money spent on them with extensive if not exotic location work and good attention to prop and costume detail. Kenny Rogers manages to look interested for most of the time and generally holds the films together through the force of his character.
Artisan’s release typically has no supplementary content, but you are getting two films for the price of one. The full frame transfers (as originally shot) feature natural-looking colours and good black levels, but suffer from noticeable edge effects from time to time. Unfortunately, Artisan has chosen to spread the first feature over two discs, placing the last hour of it on the second disc with the entire second feature. The stereo sound tracks are adequate.