The greatest American film director since Orson Welles is Martin Scorsese, and
he has an extensive resume to prove it. In the 1990's, he has dazzled us with
"GoodFellas," "Cape Fear," and "The Age of Innocence." These films are the
best, most thought-provoking and entertaining of the decade, offering
multitudes of cinematic pleasures. "Casino" is one more to add to the crop, an
indelibly fascinating saga of the Mob's fallout from Las Vegas in the late 70's
and early 80's.
"Casino" stars the great Robert De Niro as Sam "Ace" Rothstein, a high-rolling
gambler and expert bookie who runs the fictional Tangiers hotel casino for the
mob "back home" (purportedly Chicago, but names had to be dropped in the event
of a lawsuit). Ace has to maintain active control of the casino and make sure
not to disturb the Mob's constant "skimming" of money from the count rooms. Ace
is acutely aware of how a casino is run and knows every single trick in the
book - he even weighs each roll of dice to see if it meets his standards. He is
the quintissential control freak, going so far as to make sure that there are
an equal amount of blueberries in each muffin at the restaurants!
Enter Joe Pesci as the childhood friend of Ace's, known as Nicky Santoro, a
volatile, brutally violent Mob enforcer (he has no qualms of squeezing a guy's
head in a vise in one of the most shockingly profane moments in film history).
Nicky comes to Vegas to keep an eye on Ace, who is reluctant to have him in
tow. Throughout the years, Nicky causes so much trouble for Ace (opening a
jewelry store and performing all kinds of heists, not to mention multiple
murders) that they can't even be seen together.
On one night at the casino, Ace sees the beautiful Ginger McKenna (Sharon
Stone), a glitzy hooker who swindles from her escorts, and the moment he sees
this grand beauty, he becomes enamored to the tune of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love
is Strange." They have an affair, but Ginger does not love him despite agreeing
to his marriage proposal. This is not a marriage, it is a monetary arrangement.
What does she have to lose? She has everything money can buy including an array
of fur coats, garish outfits, an excessive amount of jewelry, a beautiful house
with a pool (which they never seem to enjoy), and a "key" to his safety deposit
box. Ginger is basically "set up for life."
"Casino" is based on actual events as depicted in the gritty non-fiction book
by Nicholas Pileggi, and the script is written by Pileggi and Scorsese (they
previously collaborated on "GoodFellas"). The alcoholic/drug addict Ginger and
the explosive Nicky lead Ace downhill with their bantering and brief affair.
The FBI and the Mob eventually curtail the Vegas business of skimming leading
to what many say was the last remnants of the Old West.
"Casino" boasts some great performances including De Niro as the highly
repressed "Ace" - a man who does not change through the course of the story and
is more interested in controlling all the odds than anything else. Joe Pesci is
at his snarling, foul-mouthed, hateful best here since "GoodFellas," playing
essentially the same role - a diminutive thug prone to sadistic violence. In
addition, he clumsily resorts to careless behavior when sleeping with Ace's
wife, and relentlessly badgers dealers for no reason.
There are also equally meaty roles supplied by Kevin Pollak as a crooked
realtor turned politician, L.Q. Jones as one of the casino supporters who has a
tiff with Ace concerning the firing of his son (amusingly played by Drive-In
Critic Joe Bob Briggs), Alan King as a cigar-chomping Teamster, Frank Vincent
as Nicky's partner in crime, and even Scorsese's mother, Catherine Scorsese, as
the mother of a mobster who chastises him for cursing.
Sharon Stone is the true revelation in Scorsese's epic, bringing down all the
king's horses and all the king's men in Ace's casino empire. She contrasts
nicely from glamorous hustler to pathetic, boorish drunk. An example of her
transition is evident early in the film when the just-married Ginger sobbingly
calls her former pimp lover, Lester Diamond (James Woods), whom she gives money
to in need. Ginger is so sickened by Ace's surveillance that she resorts to
cocaine and binge drinking. Later in the film, out of desperation, she runs
away with her daughter to Lester. Sharon Stone flawlessly depicts Ginger's
changes and attitudes, both emotionally and fashionably, and is more vibrant on
screen than ever before.
"Casino" is full of so many great scenes, including the first hour which is a
docudrama of how casinos are run, how the Mob skims profits, and how the money
is packaged and shipped from Vegas to "Back Home," as the titles indicate. The
first count room sequence is an unedited marvel that runs a little more than
two minutes as we see how they make an entrance and leave with a suitcase of
money without anyone asking any questions. We even see how the pit bosses and
casino managers track all the players - there's a moment of sudden violence
when a con-artist is given a fake heart attack and his hand is severely
pummeled by a mallet. Scorsese's point, as in "GoodFellas," is that the Mob
will go through severe measures to make sure you get the point.
The dramatic personal stories of Ace, Ginger and Nicky sets up the second half
of the film, and they are expertly handled by Scorsese, especially the scenes
of torment between Ace and Ginger where he seems to watch her like a hawk.
Still, Scorsese overdoes the emotional scenes between Ace's quiet rage and
Ginger's inebriated periods spent in bed - they weigh the movie down a bit in
the middle section. The scenes between Ginger and Nicky don't make a lot of
sense either but their portentous affair does show a relentless nature within
them that leads to their tragic denouements. The slimy James Woods knows how to
play sleaze and does it with poise as Lester - I do wish it was a more
full-bodied character so we could understand Ginger's attraction to him. Still,
this is Wood's finest role since 1989's "True Believer."
Any way you slice it, "Casino" is still a stunning work of art by Scorsese, and
it ranks as one of the best crime films ever made. The characters are not
weaved with any sense of sympathy or sentiment, yet you will not easily forget
them. They stay with you, and the restrained Ace (the most complex, fully-drawn
De Niro/Scorsese character yet) is the first Scorsese male protagonist who will
stop at nothing to keep his female counterpart with him. Despite her severe
problems, Ace will do anything to help her because he loves her and their
daughter, and it is one more person he feels he can control.
"Casino" is not as great as "GoodFellas" and does not possess the same
force-of-nature style, but it is as equally honest, scintillating, humanistic
Copyright © 1995 Jerry Saravia