Judge Gordon Sullivan also does a wicked Michael Caine impersonation.
Revenge is a work of art.
Whatever you think of his politics, Marx was pretty spot on in his diagnosis of capitalism as a system. One of his main arguments is that what we think of as capitalism replaced the previous feudal system, a system where individuals worked for their social betters, producing goods and or services in direct exchange for other goods or services. Capitalism, in contrast, makes everyone work for money, an abstract concept that replaces goods or services (though, crucially, they can be exchanged). As capitalism advances, money becomes ever more abstract, from hard metal to soft paper to marks in a ledger to digital bits shuffled around the world.
My point is that I don't think it's an accident that the heyday of caper films was in the era prior to the digitization of money. There's something so much more satisfying about cracking vaults and drilling through floors than making a bunch of ones and zeroes travel over unseen wires. Since money has become ever more intangible, filmmakers have had to change their game a bit. In response, many choose to go retro, trying to capture that heroic era of crime capers. Gambit does just that, offering a 21st century spin on a con-man caper. Though not a deep film, Gambit offers plenty of pleasures.
Facts of the Case
Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman, Die Hard) is a miserable narcissist who runs a media empire and makes everyone around him miserable. He also has a taste for expensive Impressionist paintings, which one of his employees, Harry (Colin Firth, The King's Speech) plans to use against him. Harry hopes to offer Lionel a fake Monet using rodeo-rider P. J. Puznowski (Cameron Diaz, Gangs of New York) as his front woman, making off with a few of Shahbandar's millions.
Gambit sets itself up as the standard, almost cliché, caper film. We have the plucky, everyman protagonist who's using his con more for revenge against an overbearing jerk than to line his own pockets. We've got the wildcard in the form of P. J. Puznowski, who gets to simultaneously play love interest and bait. And we've got a scenery-chewing villain who is so nasty we want to see him get bilked out of millions of pounds. Finally, there's the caper, which involves a bit of seduction, a bit of deception, and of course doesn't ever seem to go quite according to plan.
Gambit isn't looking to change the world of caper films. Instead, it wants to remind us of the good ol' days of (especially 60s) crime films, when the Bond-style thieves would be just as comfortable in a tux as they are in a black cap, as likely to be on the Riveria as breaking into a balcony window. Of course we're past that age now, and so Gambit has to take a deflated, comic angle on the material, but that's part of the charm. The film opens with animated credits that throw us back a couple of decades, and the string-heavy score keeps things light and would sound perfectly natural in a compilation of hits from the 60s soundtracks.
It's no surprise, though, that the film takes a slightly comedic look back on a much-loved genre: the screenplay was crafted by Joel and Ethan Coen from a short story by a fellow screenwriter (Sidney Carroll, writer of The Hustler most famously). It has their quirky blend of outsize characters, their affection for genres past their prime, and plenty of twisty plot points to keep viewers engaged. What impresses most, though, is the way that the American Coens have somehow captured a very British sense of humor. In one scene, Colin Firth ends up on the ledge outside his room at the Savoy hotel without his pants. It's an awkward situation for anyone, but to put Colin Firth, without pants, outside the Savoy in particular feels like they have a grasp of British comedy that's fun and surprising.
However, the main reason to watch Gambit is to see three brilliant comic actors doing their stuff together. Colin Firth has won accolades from his dramatic performances, most famously in The King's Speech. When he's not playing dramatic roles he's often the romantic lead. In Gambit, he plays a put-upon art expert who is the underdog. Not terribly masculine, but with a good heart. He gets the droll, straight-man moments, but also gets to cut with a witty line. It's all in the timing, and Firth has a feel for it. Cameron Diaz has also found herself increasingly playing dramatic roles, but Gambit lets her put on a Texas accent and fool around in London. She has the thankless job of playing the American stooge, but Diaz pitches her performance to the cheap seats. Surprisingly, it works. Finally, there's Alan Rickman, doing his level-best to throw off the image of the mopey Snape. If his Nottingham from Prince of Thieves were to run a media corporation he would look something like Lionel Shahbandar.
The Blu-ray release is pretty solid as well. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer keeps things bright and clear. Detail is generally strong, colors pop appreciably, and black levels stay consistent and deep. It's not a wowing kind of transfer, but it serves the material. The DTS-HD 5.1 track keeps dialogue clear in the front, with the surrounds getting a bit of use here and there.
Sadly, there are no extras aside from an UltraViolet digital copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Gambit is not an ambitious film, and I'm probably overselling it a bit. Gambit wasn't really picked up for North American distribution, despite its strong cast and the fact that the Coens are in pretty high demand lately. I'm not sure if that says something about the film itself, or fears about how the audience will take it. Either way, Gambit is a fun film that should be encountered with low expectations. My only real complaint about the film is Stanley Tucci's performance. I love Tucci, but his portrayal of a rival art expert feels like the worst combination of his actorly excesses. Luckily for me he's only in a few scenes.
Gambit is a fun, though slight, take on the caper-comedy. It's got some fun performances, a clever-enough plot, and a throw-back mentality that's easy to appreciate. Fans of any of the actors should definitely check it out.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Digital Copy
Review content copyright © 2014 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.