Martin Scorsese re-teamed with his Goodfellas writing partner Nicholas Pileggi for 1995's Casino, an underrated crime saga about the "good old days" in Las Vegas, when the mob was still in charge. The fascinating story reunites Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for three solid hours of crime, greed and conspicuous consumption.
Scorsese repeats his format of mixing present-tense dramatic scenes with intense past-tense narration. For at least the first half-hour we expect the narration to quit, enabling the movie to move forward; then we realize that the voiceovers are the backbone of the film's structure. Casino's narration continues through the entire movie, which seems to race by. Several character voices review the events from a remove; even though a couple of them don't live through the events of the story!
Robert De Niro is Sam Rothstein, who goes by the name "Ace". A brilliant handicapper and odds manipulator, Ace is picked to head up the Tangiers, a Vegas casino supposedly chaired by glad-hander Phillip Green (Kevin Pollack) but really controlled by the mob. Ace runs an exceedingly tight ship and profits go way up; the narrative is frequently interrupted to examine the workings on the casino floor or the means by which the profits are skimmed and taken directly to organized crime bosses in the Midwest.
Following Ace to Vegas is his one-time bodyguard Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who has "made-man" status with the mob and cannot be pushed around. A particularly violent enforcer, Nicky abuses his friendships and infiltrates the Tangiers to rake off profits of his own. Meanwhile, Ace falls in love with and marries Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), an ex-hooker making a good living stealing chips from high rollers. Ginger confuses independence with duplicity, and maintains her emotional ties with small-time hustler Lester Diamond (James Woods), her former pimp. Nicky's increasingly violent murders and robberies bring undue attention to the Tangiers, as does Ace when he fires a relative of the local gaming commissioner caught stealing. Suddenly under investigation from all sides, Ace's life goes to pieces when Ginger tries to separate him from both his daughter and his million-dollar 'emergency' fund.
Casino gets off to a bad start when Scorsese opens with the relaxed Ace Rothstein walking to his car in a parking lot. Anyone who's ever seen a gangster movie knows the car has been wired with a bomb. Making matters worse, the obviously fatal explosion turns out to be a cheat -- almost three hours later Ace stumbles from the car basically unhurt, reminding us of the rigged cliffhangers in old serials. But from that point on the story never takes a predictable turn. As in Goodfellas the inner workings of organized crime are too incredible not to be true. Dim-bulb mob flunkies fly weekly to St. Louis with suitcases full of cash. Nasty strong-arm expert Nicky Santoro isn't above using ungodly tortures to enforce his will; when he's done his victims beg to have their throats cut. When the federal heat comes down on the casino, we're treated to a surreal sight. Ace's pleasant image-repair newspaper interview is interrupted by two agents in an airplane on surveillance duty -- forced to land on the country club golf course because they ran out of gas.
Ace's domestic troubles receive equal emphasis, and actually put him in much more danger. Bred and trained to trust no-one but retaining an irrational weakness for Lester, Ginger plays the role of the adoring wife. She revels in the riches Ace bestows on her and watches happily as he entrusts her with vital access to secret caches of money. It takes years for Ace to see the light, but when he eventually detects Ginger's lack of sincerity the stage is set for a destructive pas de deux. Casino makes us understand how a two-way tantrum can result in the collapse of a dynasty.
Designer Dante Ferretti layers Casino with the kind of consumer luxuries that Ace and Ginger possess but can never really enjoy, like the status afforded by buying their way into an exclusive country club, or flying to Los Angeles on the casino's private jet. Dressed too expensively to be jet-setters but as crass and mercenary as the mob wives of Goodfellas, Ginger and Nicky's wife Jennifer (Melissa Prophet) live in denial of responsibility to anyone except their defenseless children. Only Ace remains reasonably sane, watching as everyone around him is corrupted by contact with the avalanche of dirty money.
Casino did respectable business but charmed neither the public nor the Academy, which is a shame because Scorsese's direction is some of his best. De Niro and Pesci's characters are much more developed here than in the earlier Pileggi adaptation. Pesci is particularly good as a human bulldog incapable of rest -- he's always charging forward, causing trouble, biting off more. The film is scored with carefully picked pop songs and rock tunes, integrated even better than the cues for Goodfellas. Scorsese's Casino is a long movie but also a mature statement about a specific era in crime. The final reckoning comes with the transformation of Sin Town. The old casinos are dynamited to make way for a corporate owned "Disneyland" Vegas that emphasizes day-care and fantasy, with the old vices shifted one or two spots down on the menu.
Universal's Blu-ray of Casino presents the 3-hour epic in a dazzling transfer; even on DVD the rich reds and golds of the casino interiors tended to smear. The fancier HD audio appears to be only in the English DTS encoded tracks -- DD 2.0 tracks are provided for English, French, German, Castilian and Latin American Spanish, Italian and Japanese.
The extras are lumped under Universal's "U-Control" menu, available only to owners of the latest Blu-ray players. Martin Scorsese, Sharon Stone, Nichols Pileggi and others pop up in picture-within-picture windows to comment at certain points in the movie. Frankly, any extra that expects us to sit through all of Casino a second time to catch odd comments here and there is not going to hold the attention very long.
Other extras are "deleted scenes", which turn out to be some cute outtakes -- Martin Scorsese's mother Catherine chides the actors and her son for swearing on the set. One featurette called Vegas and the Mob covers some of the highpoints of Vegas history, and a TV program called History Alive: True Crime Authors profiles author-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Casino (Blu-ray) rates:
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