Friday, February 10, 2012

Classic Throwback: Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

Casino can be considered a companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, Goodfellas, with the story also adapted by Nicolas Pileggi from one of his novels (Wise Guy for Goodfellas and Casino here). Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci also return, but do not reprise their roles from Goodfellas.



Casino focuses on the lives of Las Vegas mobsters, who work out of Kansas City, during the 1970’s. The mafia has direct involvement in gambling – sending Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (De Niro), a sports handicapper, to Vegas to run the Tangiers Casino on behalf of the families. He takes advantage of lax gaming laws, which allow him to work as the casino’s de facto boss (though listed under a less involved title), while his gaming license is pending. The mafia skims the profits before the records are reported to income tax agencies.

Sam’s friend and mafia enforcer, Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is sent in to protect Sam and the business – but several run-ins with Sam, who is concerned that his presence is more of a liability than a benefit, and a ban from casinos on the strip by the gaming board, prompts him and his crew, including Frankie Marino (Frank Vincent, Goodfellas), to start their own shakedowns – using a jeweler as a front. Soon enough, more and more holes are made in the desert, and Sam's affiliation with Nicky makes him a target, while the Kansas City bosses quickly run out of patience with Nicky's unpredictability.


Nicky is just one of Sam’s causes of stress, faced with incompetent staff (whose connections place him in hot water when he fires them) and an assortment of gambling hustlers, finding ways to cheat at blackjack and baccarat using some good baccarat strategy. Sam is always looking over his shoulder in case there is an investigation into his gaming license or proposed mafia ties - and looking into the personal affairs of his wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone), who continues to see an old boyfriend, a conman named Lester Diamond (James Woods).

It is Sam’s toxic relationship with Ginger, a sure-to-be-trouble hustler, which is his biggest mistake and most influences his head for business. Ginger is a train wreck of a woman and an unsavoury human being (an irresponsible parent, a heavy drinker and drug abuser) and is obsessed with the money Sam promised her when they agreed to marry. Sharon Stone is insufferable in the role, and it shocked me to discover that she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. She grossly overacted, and though she was supposed to be extremely unlikeable, her despicable character took me right out of the film, and the second half, which are dominated by her desperate attempts to access the safety deposit box she has no moral right to (but unfortunately for Sam, a legal right) and unlike Goodfellas, becomes frustratingly tedious and short of entertaining.

I just didn’t care for any of the characters, and the bosses ‘back home’ had no personality either. They were just a bunch of old guys who are repeatedly handed money throughout the film – and occasionally order someone to be taken out. No doubt this is how it would have been – but my point is the lack of character. This is far from De Niro’s best work (he looks bored most of the time) and Joe Pesci created a much more memorable character in Goodfellas. The film’s ripe language (not even the narration escapes) and often-extreme violence (it is tough viewing watching a guy get his fingers crushed by a hammer, or one have his head squashed in a vice) will be a turn-off for a lot of viewers, but they are trademarks for a Scorsese film. All of the trademarks are here – the large set pieces, the huge amount of extras, the extremely long tracking shots, and the frequent use of montage. It is a shame because Scorsese’s strict attention to detail in capturing the vibrant atmosphere of the casino is really impressive, as are the behind-the-scenes looks into casino’s complex security measures, not to mention the toe-tapping hits that make up the fantastic soundtrack.


The voice-over succeeded in being both explanatory, accompanying almost everything we were witnessing and giving it context and a personal commentary, but also ‘conversational’ with different narrators recounting from their perspective, and often leading into one another. Sam and Nicky were the most prominent – though Frank Vincent also has an opportunity. I thought it became a little bit excessive after while. Scorsese’s Vegas is as much of a neon jungle as it is today, but in addition to being a visually awe-inspiring city, it was gritty, violent, corrupt and confrontational behind the scenes.

Now, with the prevalence of internet casino, making it easier for gamblers to indulge in their favourite attractions without making the visit to Vegas, one can raise the question as to whether the city is brimming with as much life as it used to in this bygone era. Still, Scorsese's vision of the dual faces of Vegas (the glitz and glamour, and the seedy mafia ties) is pretty great. But despite the always excellent work from his team of Robert Richardson, Thelma Schoonmaker and Dante Ferretti, Casino is a tough one to recommend. It has all the pieces to be a gangster classic, the tales of a smooth operator overseeing the successful running of a Vegas casino, and an aggressive strongman who acts as his muscle, but shakes down the locals on the side – but at nearly three hours, it is way too long, and it becomes a rather dull and loathsome experience in the latter half.

13 comments:

  1. No! No! No!

    I absolutely love CASINO ... perhaps even a little more so than GOODFELLAS.

    It's is long, but the dramatic beats worked for me & and the whole perceptive outlook on Vegas, gambling, lust, and friendship truly made for a stirring Scorsese epic.

    Unfortunate you didn't quite care for it.

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    1. I think this is a hard film to love - and I certainly didn't enjoy it as much as Goodfellas, a far more entertaining film, for me. The pieces are there - gambling, Vegas, the mob - but I got really aggravated by the toxic relationships that plague Sam's life. Stone and Pesci were insufferable. Nothing against Scorsese's filmmaking, I think he is a great filmmaker, but this is one of my least-favourite, unfortunately.

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  2. One of a handful of Scorsese movies I've enjoyed, although I haven't seen it since it came out (I actually saw it on the day of its release here) and I don't know if I still would.

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    1. I'm not sure. Perhaps if I saw it back when it was released (way too young) I might have enjoyed it more. But after Goodfellas, and a bunch of other mafia films, this one just didn't captivate me as much. This is also the second time I watched it - i didn't care for it the first time, and I thought I would give it another chance. No go.

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  3. What a great write up, Andy!

    I really enjoyed reading it, even though I don't necessarily agree with everything that you wrote, you certainly make some good arguments.

    I really enjoy watching 'Casino' almost as much as I enjoy 'Goodfellas', not as much, but it is certainly out there. I love the atmosphere, the inner-workings of the casino, the locations, and how ultimately it is the personalities of the characters that bring about their own issues.

    Personally I thought that Sharon Stone was great in her role as Ginger. I might even say that I loved her performance because her character was despicable, conniving, and complex, but Stone was able to deliver on this. It was different to most of the other roles that she had played and she did very well to hold her own against De Niro and Pesci.

    One of my favourite scenes is when they take the guys out to the back room and go to work on them delivering a message that they won't soon forget!

    I think that 'Casino' is a great drama with some strong performances and is a worthy addition to the Scorsese collection.

    But Andy, your argument was so convincing that the next time I watch it, I know I am going to be holding Sharon Stone's performance under some heavy scrutiny....

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    1. Thanks for reading Russell. You make some valid points, but I just don't feel the same way. I liked the inner-workings of the casino, and I liked the way the film set up, but lost interest when Stone became a whimpering (and screaming) mess.

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  4. I almost agree with you on all accounts. I know, we probably should not compare it with Goodfellas but with so many similar factors, I can't stop myself. And then it starts to crumble.

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  5. I have fond memories of this film simply because I saw it at the theater with a girl I really, really liked in high school. Yes. High School. Sigh.

    Nevertheless, I'm sort of on your side, Andy. I almost think the documentary aspects of it work better than the personal relationships, and the one thing that HAS gotten stronger about it over the years as you point out is that ending that kind of works as an elegy to a bygone era.

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    1. High school? Haha. Nice work. Was it NC-17 rated? It has an R18 here.

      I do think the doco aspects work better - and yeah, capturing Vegas at this specific period, where it is brimming with corruption, is really interesting. It is a pity they didn't include one likeable character to keep an audience engaged.

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  6. A very rare disagreement between us. I love everything about Casino. I do think it is too big, too long, and too lavish, but that's precisely what I dig about it. I think all your points, as usual, are very valid, but man, I think it's one of Scorsese's best.

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  7. Casino is one of the best movies ever. DeNiro was superb in it and I think this was one of his best roles.

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    1. I am glad you enjoyed it Jenny, but as I have explained I don't share your enthusiasm. I liked De Niro, but I find the film largely unappealing.

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  8. This is a good and high quality film, I advise everyone. If you like these movies, but have not tried themselves in gambling, then I advise you learn how to play Online Casino Guide. This will help you understand the film in all aspects. This is important, since the film teaches a lot.

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