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Artisan Home Entertainment presents
The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw / The Gambler V: Playing for Keeps (1991/1994)

"Every gambler knows
that the secret to surviving
Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep..."

- Kenny Rogers (from Don Schlitz's title song)

Review By: Jeff Rosado   
Published: August 12, 2003

Stars: Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Dixie Carter, Loni Anderson, Mariska Hargitay, Linda Evans, Rick Rossovich, Jere Burns, Juli Donald, Kris Kamm, Christopher Rich, Brett Cullen, Scott Paulin, Park Overall
Other Stars: Chuck Connors, Johnny Crawford, Gene Barry, David Carradine, Jack Kelly, Doug McClure, Hugh O'Brian, Clint Walker, Mickey Rooney, Dub Taylor, Claude Akins, Patrick Macnee, Brad Sullivan, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Martin Kove, Zelda Rubinstein, Geoffrey Lewis, Ned Vaughn, Stephen Bridgewater, Richard Riehle
Director: Dick Lowry/Jack Bender

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for mild violence
Run Time: 05h:48m:45s
Release Date: June 17, 2003
UPC: 707729140931
Genre: western

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-C+B- D-

DVD Review

In the music industry, there's what they call a "career record"—a song so ingrained into the public's consciousness that there's no need for any wannabe singer (or even the artist himself) to bother with karaoke monitors or teleprompters. For music industry legend Kenny Rogers, his entry into this category has to be The Gambler, a 1978 country chart smash that intrigued listeners with its tale of a late night meeting between an inexperienced card shark and a world-weary master poker man, "on a train bound for nowhere" (see how easy it is after 25 years?). Long after being taken out of heavy rotation on radio station playlists, Rogers got even more mileage out of the song when it became the inspiration for a highly successful (and actually quite good) made-for-TV movie that spawned four sequels over a 15 year period. Artisan gathers the most recent-follow ups on a two-disc set: The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw/The Gambler V: Playing For Keeps.

We catch up with Brady Hawkes (Rogers) in 1906 while he partakes in yet another high stakes face off in Juarez, New Mexico, where young opponent Lute Cantrell (Christopher Welch) accuses him of cheating. Alas, Hawkes did have a spare card tucked away. But hey, you don't play with a joker, right? Not at all amused by their antics, local lawmen quickly take them into custody for another game: A real life version of Hangman. This time, Brady does cheat—death, that is, thanks to the aid of Burgundy Jones (Reba McEntire), a female gunslinger with the drive of Annie Oakely and the fashion sense of Emma Peel. Once out of harm's way, the leather-clad heroine reveals her true reason for coming to Brady's rescue: With gambling of any kind soon to be outlawed in these parts, Burgundy wants to represent Hawkes in a San Francisco poker game where the winner walks away with $25,000. Being one that works alone, Brady initially refuses her proposal, but all it takes is another near-miss confrontation with those Mexican law folk where Ms. Jones comes in handy to convince him otherwise.

But what good is a western without a sidekick for comic relief? Cue Ethan Cassidy (Rick Rossovich), a good-looking but not-too-bright fella who's just escaped the noose via none other than Judge Roy Bean (Brad Sullivan). Unfortunately, he had to marry the man's clinging vine of a daughter (Juli Donald) to send the reaper away for another day. So it's up to buddy Brady to devise a clever plan to spring the unhappy honeymooner to freedom, which he accomplishes with the help of an unwitting drunken jockey.

On a stopover in Dodge City, Burgundy confesses to one little bitty detail she left out after shaking on their deal. In order to qualify to the big game out west, Brady will have to win a poker play off in the Kansas town, just one of many surprises in a journey beset with ongoing Wile E. Coyote type meddling from Cantrell, a menacing gang of bank robbers led by no-good Cate Dalton (Jere Burns) and run-ins with many colorful (not to mention familiar) characters, including Bart Maverick (Jack Kelly), Wyatt Earp (Hugh O'Brian), Bat Masterson (yes, Gene Barry) and, I kid you not, Kwai Chang Caine (Keith Kung Fu Carradine).

Straddling the fence between routine Western-eerin' and a lost time travel episode of The Love Boat (now, there's a potential spin-off idea for network executives reading here), The Gambler Returns suffers due to the gimmicky inserting of "special guest stars." Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing Chuck Connors with rifle in hand, hearing the theme from The Virginian trumpeting the arrival of Doug McClure and James Drury, and watching Brian Keith play straight man to Dub Taylor. But when you have actors as capable as Rogers and McEntire, why go on cameo overload? Speaking of the Oklahoma country music queen, it's hard to believe this was only her second film (prior to Tremors). Brimming with the kind of confidence that sometimes takes years to build, she practically steals every scene she's in; who else but Reba could get away with a line like, "I wouldn't give you the sweat off my horse's butt!" Rossovich is also great as the befuddled Ethan, bringing the same qualities that made him so appealing in Roxanne; his comical boxing match with a protégée of Diamond Jim Brady (yep, he made it onto the guest list, too) may be the best scene in the movie.

In The Gambler V, it's a few years past Brady's adventures with Burgundy; trading in his aces and clubs for land and cattle, his initiation into farm life is cut short when buddy Billy Montana (Bruce Boxleitner) hands him a newspaper featuring the latest exploits on the infamous "Wild Bunch." Upon closer look at the photograph, Hawkes is shocked to see a very familiar face: his estranged son, Jeremiah (Kris Kamm).

Shunning boarding school for adventure, the younger Hawkes is having fun with his new extended family until a post-robbery gathering ends with gunshots fired by detectives from the Pinkerton agency, who've finally caught up with our now not-so-merry men, and sole gal Etta (Mariska Hargitay). Unnerved by the experience, Jeremiah wonders if this is the kind of life he wants to lead, but with encouragement from Etta, he decides to stick it out for the team's next job, a risky train robbery. But little does he know that poppa Brady and several Pinkerton officials were on that very same train. Hitching a wagon ride with gypsies, Hawkes' next stop is Clayton, New Mexico, where recently captured gang member Black Jack (Martin Kove) is about to be hanged. No fink, he refuses to answer Brady's pleas as to the whereabouts of Jeremiah. But on hanging day, with the retired gambler in attendance still hoping for a last minute change of heart, Jack gives a thinly disguised reference point just before the trap door gives way to (in his words) "meeting the Devil for breakfast."

Traveling to the Texas town of Ft. Worth, Brady enlists the help of old friend and town madam Fanny Porter (Loni Anderson), but not before a romantic reunion with old flame/singing star Lily Langtry (Dixie Carter). While in her VIP section at the show, Brady notices Jeremiah in the balcony and quietly arranges what turns out to be a very terse reunion, which eventually leads to Brady coming out of retirement for one last round of poker.

Like its double feature counterpart, Gambler suffers from having to pad out a near 3-hour running time for the benefit of network sweeps (especially with its lengthy setup for the finale that almost put me to sleep). However, it's a much stronger, more traditional western and the guest star quotient is lessened but still effective (especially Dixie Carter, who disappears way too soon). Jack Binder's direction is also much stronger with a heavy emphasis on location shooting in sharp contrast to the back-lot look of Returns. Although both films lack the tightness of the way superior (and much shorter) 1980 original that inaugurated the series, Rogers' enormous likeability in the title role keeps us moseying on through the valleys and peaks.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Since both films were helmed by different directors, it was an interesting experience to compare. The Gambler Returns (helmed by Dick Lowry, who also oversaw the first three films in the series) is awash in brown filtering and mild grain which, while slightly obtrusive, actually befits a western. However, a decidedly digital looking picture does not, and that's my biggest problem; evidently Artisan had to work with a faulty master by judging from the brief bit of tape damage in Chapter 9. On the other hand, Gambler V looks much better, helped by Binder's reliance on more natural lighting and surroundings in tandem with Edward J. Pei's striking location shooting. There's very little grain to speak of, fleshtones are on the spot and edge enhancement is minimal as opposed to the former film. Another note: In an odd move, Part I of Returns and the first hour of Part II are on the first (single layered) disc while the conclusion is forced to share a dual layered second with Gambler V. Although it doesn't affect the picture quality on the latter film very much, wouldn't it have made more sense for both movies to be put on their own individual dual-layered platter? It's like we're living in the age of flippers being forced to change to another disc in mid-stream. Given how swell Gambler V looks, the results could have been more impressive if it had disc two all to itself.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Although both films are in basic 2.0 stereo, they're extremely narrow with very little in the way of directional effects (Returns also suffers from extreme compression at times). On the other hand, dialogue is sharp and well mixed; nice low end for a television production, too.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 37 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Could you imagine a Kenny Rogers/Reba McEntire commentary track? Good, that's what you'll have to do, then. Seriously though, I would have welcomed a verbal talk-a-thon with both of the directors; with all the star-power in these films, wow…(I know, I'll have to imagine, too). Other than our fistful of Kenny times two, nada-enchilada as far as bonuses.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

While I feel the earlier films in the series are much more deserving of digital debuts, The Gambler Returns/The Gambler V earn enough aces for me to mildly recommend Artisan's low-priced coupling.


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