Casino (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

After viewing Casino, you may never look at Las Vegas in quite the same way. While this film, adapted from Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, doesn't offer much in the way of startling revelations, it presents a fascinating insider's perspective of what goes on behind-the-scenes in the country's gambling mecca. As is stated several times, Vegas isn't about fun, glitz, or glamour. Those things are just the surface gloss. Instead, it's all about greed and money -- bringing customers in, keeping them playing, and sucking them dry.

Casino opens with short sequence in 1983 before moving on to the meat of the story, which is related through flashbacks. Director Martin Scorsese makes heavy use of voiceovers, employing disembodied monologues by both lead actors -- Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci -- to fill in gaps. The sheer volume of words sporadically detracts from character development, but it is integrated successfully enough not to seem overly intrusive. While the intelligence and wit of the voiceovers makes them palatable, such nonstop talking isn't always the best way to convey a story -- the temptation to tell something, rather than show it, is too great. Casino doesn't always avoid that trap.

In every way -- from the fantastic sets, rich dialogue, and unapologetic violence to the well-portrayed characters and themes of loyalty and betrayal -- Casino is pure Scorsese. Although not the director's top work, this is nevertheless compelling film making. Scorsese has never pulled punches in breathing life into his ideas, and he doesn't start here. If there's an obvious weakness in Casino, it's that it occasionally seems derivative of Goodfellas.

During its three-hour running time, Casino tells the story of two men's intermingled lives. "Back home years ago" (as an on-screen caption reads), they were friends and co-workers. Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro, in his eighth acting collaboration with Scorsese) was a gambler who never lost. He researched all his bets carefully, and rarely made a bad pick. His winning tendencies gained him popularity and favor with the local mob, who used Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to shadow and protect him. Now that Ace has moved to Vegas to manage the Tangiers Casino, Nicky isn't far behind. And, while the two gravitate to opposite sides of the law, with Ace keeping his fingers clean and Nicky taking over the local crime scene, their paths continue to cross, and their encounters become increasingly less friendly. Stirred into the mix is Ace's girlfriend, Ginger (Sharon Stone), an expert hustler who attracts men like flies. Although she agrees to marry Ace, she continues a liaison with her former pimp (James Woods) while encouraging Nicky's affections.

As usual, Scorsese obtains excellent performances from his leads. Joe Pesci, essentially reprising his Goodfellas performance, will probably get all the attention, since this sort of flamboyance attracts raves. Actually, though, it's De Niro's more subtle, better-contained acting that's riveting. Casino is supposed to focus on both Ace and Nicky, but, despite nearly equal screen time for each, our sympathy is drawn towards the former. For this, De Niro's portrayal shares equal responsibility with the screenplay.

In his most recent four films, Scorsese has shown the ability to take a mediocre actress and cull an impressive performance from her. In Goodfellas, it was Lorraine Bracco. In Cape Fear, Juliette Lewis. In The Age of Innocence, Michelle Pfeiffer (arguably the best of the bunch). And now, in Casino, it's Sharon Stone, whose resume (Basic Instinct, Sliver, The Specialist) is enough to make any serious movie-goer wince. Surprisingly, however, she's fine -- not Oscar material, but strong enough not to drag down the film. Stone doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, and, based on Scorsese's track record, a lion's share of the credit for this should be given to him.

Supporting players include a restrained James Woods, comedian Don Rickles in a serious role, Alan King (also playing it straight), and Kevin Pollak. Scorsese's mother has a brief (and very funny) appearance as the no-nonsense parent of a bumbling, small-time gangster. And faces associated with Vegas, like Steve Allen, Frankie Avalon, Jayne Meadows, and Jerry Vale, have cameos.

Casino was filmed in Las Vegas, and this shows in the splashiness and energy of nearly every scene. By using gaudy costumes and a 70's soundtrack, Scorsese takes us back some two decades. Starting with the vivid opening credits (designed by Elaine and Saul Bass, whose amazing work on The Age of Innocence was one of that film's highlights), Casino sparkles like its fake diamond of a host city. The cinematography, which uses surprisingly few tricks other than freeze-framing to emphasize key moments, is crisp and clean.

By now, audiences have come to expect forceful films from Martin Scorsese. With Casino, he doesn't disappoint. The movie is long, but, with a fast-moving storyline, escalating tension, and surprisingly robust humor, the three hours move quickly. Several flaws, mostly minor, keep Casino on a plateau slightly below that of the director's best (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas), but, in this relatively-bland Thanksgiving movie season, this is one of the few entries worth making an effort to see.

Casino (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 2:58
U.S. Release Date: 1995-11-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1