The best movies all have high stakes – some colossal aim or goal that must be achieved, against the odds, in order for everything to be right. Think of the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones weighs out his bag of sand against the golden idol, or the Death Star trench run in the first Star Wars film, where a young Luke Skywalker puts his neck on the line to destroy Darth Vader’s superweapon. Against all odds, the protagonists won out.
It makes perfect sense, then, that there’s a burgeoning subgenre of movies about gambling, since gambling has a built-in sense of stakes. Gambling is, by design, a high stakes activity, where each player is his/her own protagonist, working against the odds for personal fortune and gain. Narratives – especially movie stories – can exploit these built-in stakes to captivate audiences. At least, that’s the case in these five iconic movies about gambling.
Ever wanted to see the gritty side of the Las Vegas origin story? Look no further than Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino, which followed the rise and subsequent fall of real-life, Mafioso-turned-Casino-mogul Sam Rothstein. While the patrons of Sam’s casino gamble at their poker tables and slot machines, Sam partakes in a grander kind of gamble – to win over Las Vegas. This classic gambling movie teaches you that, no matter the stakes, those that play dishonestly meet their reckoning in the end.
Waking Ned Devine
You’d be forgiven for missing this under-the-radar charmer from across the pond. Waking Ned Devine surrounds a small town in Ireland that wakes up to find out, over the news, that someone in town has won the lottery. After some searching, residents find out that the winning ticket belongs to Ned Devine, and they go pay him a visit. The only problem is… Ned’s dead. This unassuming comedy then finds the townsfolk creating an elaborate ruse to claim that Ned Devine is still alive, in order to claim the lottery prize. North American audiences, more likely to learn how to play the Powerball lottery than the Irish lottery (obviously), will nevertheless find much to love about this movie.
This film is remembered now as much for its cult hit status as any of the finer plot points. Involving the underground, high stakes world of poker, the film was release amidst – and, in part, helped usher in – the poker boom of the early oughts. With Matt Damon and Edward Norton still early into their acting career, Rounders kicked off what would become a cult of personality in the poker world.
The first of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, Casino Royale sets much of its main action at a high stakes Texas hold ’em poker game in Montenegro (not Monte Carlo, as some erroneously assume). This is a rare movie where the gamble itself is a pivotal plot point, as Bond tries to reclaim terrorist money from the menacing baddie Le Chiffre. Things go awry, however, in typical 007 fashion. If you haven’t seen this modern classic of the franchise, it’s a must.
In some form or another, gambling is usually a part of a movie’s plot, whether the protagonist gambles on love, happiness or just being able to make it out alive. These four films take a more literal approach to gambling, however, and, along with the protagonists, it is the audiences that have reaped the rewards.