Farcical times in the land of Eurasia appears to be the gift Gambit gives. The cheeky cockney Michael Caine wishes to pull off the perfect heist. It is something he would do for decades across his career, Literal heists in King of Thieves and Flawless and heists of the heart in Sleuth and Alfie. Gambit falls into the former category, but flirts around the edges of the latter, as all 60s-based comedy crime capers must. These sad inevitabilities feel stale not because of their lack of longevity, but because they feel uninspired and inevitable. Gambit circumvents the problem somewhat, with charm and charisma oozing from Caine and Shirley MacLaine.
Cocky confidence oozes from Caine’s performance, as it often does. He is in his element as Harry Tristan Dean, a calm and collected cat burglar looking to con Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). All of his quips are intact, his mannerisms carried over from the set of Alfie it would seem. “Funny you should say that,” he says, bobbing around the room and conversing with his partner-in-crime, Nicole Chang (MacLaine). Their swift and sudden caper relies on the likeness Chang has to the dead wife of Shahbandar. It is the happenstance whimsy that comes from this collaboration that Gambit struggles to heave over the hill of plausibility. Caine and MacLaine do much of the heavy lifting, and lift they shall. For the whole film, they try their damndest to do as much as they can with the rather flat and simplistic direction Ronald Neame provides.
At least Neame is in his element here. Between this and the other titles that litter his filmography, Hopscotch and The Horse’s Mouth, whimsical comedies with tinges of seriousness within their performances are his bread and butter. He adapts it well, and with Gambit does appear to be finding his footing. There is never a moment that brings real depth or life to a character, they are hosts for the actors that portray them. They are left to open these performances as characters they can embody, rather than for them to bring to life. All the mannerisms of Caine, the humour of MacLaine, it is inherent in the characters they portray not because they are written that way, but because they are tailor-made for the two. It works well enough, lots of lighter moments bulk up the second act, but the chemistry is grand enough and thoroughly enjoyable.
There is an exceptionally chirpy, upbeat quality found within Gambit. It is your traditional crime caper, not taking itself too seriously and revelling in some enjoyable bouts of comedy. It is the sort of light entertainment that, while entertaining, offers a few moments of artistic integrity. They are rare beasts, but the blend is founded on steady ground. As if the chemistry between Caine and MacLaine weren’t enough, some scenes allow these performers to refine the stringent charms of their craft. Caine is the no-nonsense cockney, MacLaine is the force to be reckoned with, and they are characteristics so deeply embedded within their craft. Gambit is just another medal of honour for these two vigilant veterans.