If there’s one thing Kenny Rogers knows how to do, it’s create a successful franchise. Long before he built his chicken-and-rib empire, Rogers built a music career by melding a country sensibility with middle-of-the-road pop tunes.
One of Rogers’s biggest hits was 1978’s “The Gambler,” a classic story song about a late-night encounter between two passengers, the narrator and an aging gambler, on a train “bound for nowhere.” In exchange for the narrator’s last swallow of whiskey, the gambler dispenses a lifetime’s worth of advice (“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away, know when to run”) before expiring in his sleep.
Delivered in Rogers’ trademark gravel-road drawl, the song earned Rogers a Grammy; a year later, the character found new life on TV, complete with a name (“Brady Hawkes”) and a sidekick (Bruce Boxleitner as “Billy Montana”). The three-minute ditty would eventually spawn a TV movie and four miniseries sequels — not bad for a character who died in the original song. The Legend of the Gambler box set features three installments (two more sequels are not included here), and no extras to speak of. As a consolation prize, the set does include a snazzy set of Gambler-themed playing cards emblazoned with Rogers’ squinting face. (If nothing else, viewers can play Texas Hold ‘Em during the films’ slower parts.)
The Gambler, the first entry in the series, finds legendary poker player Hawkes (Rogers) on a train to Yuma, California, to rescue a son he’s never known from the malevolent beau of his ex-lover. Along the way, Hawkes meets up with Montana, a greenhorn looking to make a name as a professional gambler. The grizzled veteran reluctantly takes the young man under his wing, teaching him about cards and yes, life. The plot is embellished with a damsel in distress, a former saloon girl (Lee Purcell) looking to make a fresh start, who catches the eye of a lecherous railroad tycoon, Arthur Stobridge (Harold Gould). No surprise, all leads to a high-stakes card game.
The movie echoes the original tune, an odd combination of existential weariness and jaunty bravado, via buddy-movie heroics and a surprisingly hard-edged family melodrama involving another prostitute and Hawkes’ son. Writer-producer Jim Byrnes, a veteran of Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won, blends bits and pieces of innumerable Westerns into a pastiche that feels not so much like a rip-off as a nostalgic revival of genre that was moribund in 1980.
Aside from the low production values — this is very much a soundstage Western, with its bland, too-bright lighting and back-lot exteriors — the most prominent flat note is Rogers himself. While he’s not entirely terrible in his first starring role, it’s probably just as well that he’s supposed to be playing a man of few words and wooden affect. As for Boxleitner, well… he’s Boxleitner, with his dazzling grin and unwavering, plasticky cheerfulness in full effect.
The Gambler: The Adventure Continues (1983) picks up where the first film left off, with our heroes en route to another high-stakes poker game in San Francisco. The previous film’s heroine has disappeared without explanation, clearing the stage for Linda Evans as Kate Muldoon, singing sensation and bounty huntress. The black hat this time around belongs to Charlie McCourt (Mitch Ryan), an outlaw so widely feared that even the most vicious assassin slinks away at the mere mention of his name. McCourt kidnaps Hawkes’ son as part of a plot to extort a million dollars from Stobridge.
This second installment raises the stakes on all fronts, including running time (doubled, as a two-part miniseries). Unfortunately, much of this is padding; the film switches back and forth between Hawkes and the outlaws so often, for so little reason, that it’s like watching cowboys play tennis. By the fourth or fifth time the kid tries to escape his abductors, only to be recaptured and threatened with death, you wish McCourt would just shoot him already (it doesn’t seem to occur to any of them to tie the kid up). Meanwhile, Hawkes and Montana (after a great deal of inconsequential exposition) rustle up a posse of Hawkes’ former Union army buddies, in sort of a half-hearted homage to The Magnificent Seven. The show benefits from a more elaborate production and engaging performances, most notably by Brion James as Reece, a surly knife-fighter.
The third film, the unimaginatively titled The Gambler: The Legend Continues (1987), features a sprawling storyline about a conspiracy among corrupt Army cavalry officers to steal cattle and blame the theft on renegade Sioux. Joining Hawkes and Montana (who still haven’t made it to that card game in Frisco) is a cast peppered with recognizable names, including Jeffrey Jones (in an amusing foretaste of his role on Deadwood) as Buffalo Bill, Dean Stockwell, Charles Durning, George Kennedy, and Linda Gray (keep an eye out for a quick glimpse of a very young Colm Meany). Some of the actors (Durning) make little effort to hide their lack of interest, but Rogers and Boxleitner (in his farewell tour of the franchise) are as game as ever, Rogers having markedly improved since The Gambler.
In a welcome deviation from the usual course of movie franchises, this third installment actually improves on the first two, with much improved production values (including, at last, realistic lighting) and an effort to create an authentic Old West environment (there’s even horse manure in the streets!). The writers must have picked up some clues from 1985’s Pale Rider and Silverado, because The Legend Continues largely eschews the previous films’ rehash of TV Western storylines in favor of an admirably high-minded critique (three years before Dances with Wolves) of Native Americans’ treatment by rapacious white men.
While undeniably hokey in a post-Deadwood era of revisionist Westerns, the Gambler films are better-than-average artifacts of a sorry chapter in the history of the genre. For fans of both Westerns and country music, the ’80s were a mostly unhappy time, epitomized by the faux-country Urban Cowboy fad and Rustler’s Rhapsody. There’s no mistaking The Gambler and its progeny for the best of the early ’80s Westerns (such as the criminally neglected Barbarosa), but their affectionate nostalgia and playful adventure hold up pretty well.