Expectations could kill Casino faster than any potshots from critics. Martin Scorsese is the man, the most viscerally exciting director of his generation, with such classics as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas to prove it. There’s the rub. A pedestal makes a precarious perch. Any hint of dissatisfaction from the fickle crowd and down you go. Even before Casino opened, the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale of mob infiltration of Las Vegas during the 1970s. Casino, said the buzz, is too long (nearly three hours), too brutal (a thug with his head in a vise is squeezed until his eye rockets its socket) and too familiar (Scorsese again directing Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as hoods. Enough).
Tough with Scorsese on crime? I don’t think so. That’s like saying enough with Hitchcock on thrillers or John Ford on westerns. Crime is Scorsese’s canvas. With Casino, based on material from Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book (names have been changed and events altered for the film), Scorsese tries to weave visual poetry out of warped ambitions. What trips up Casino is its straining toward art. The film is not the equal of Mean Streets or GoodFellas, the more instinctive pieces in the crime trilogy that the flawed Casino completes (Coppola’s Godfather Part III fell off far more precipitously). It is, however, just as unmistakably the work of a virtuoso — bold, brutally funny and ferociously alive.
The goodfellas who came to Vegas in the 70s, before the government ended the mob’s control over gambling, found a fantasy island of cash for the taking. It was a place to exceed the most grandiose dreams of the petty crooks of Mean Streets and GoodFellas. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro), a handicapper out of Chicago, saw Vegas as “a morality carwash.” As long as he let the mob skim its take in the counting rooms, Ace could run four casinos, wear sharp suits, live large in a house with a pool, marry former showgirl Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), raise a family and pass for respectable among the politicians he bribed. No need for Ace to get his hands dirty. Nicky Santoro (Pesci), Ace’s hit-man pal just in from back home with his wife and son, takes care of the head busting. Hotheaded Nicky attends Little League, too, but mostly he kills people. The fragile house of cards collapses when Nicky fucks around with Ace’s business and his wife. The public fallout from this violent love triangle costs the mob its hold on Vegas. Scorsese plays it as Shakespearean tragedy with Ace as an Othello so driven by jealousy and pride that he loses his wife and his fiefdom.
It’s an explosive conceit that Scorsese defuses with an inexplicably long fuse. Nearly the entire first hour of Casino could pass for a documentary on how money is won, lost, counted and skimmed — with narration courtesy of Ace and Nicky. Although Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is, as ever, exemplary, the neon-slick cinematography of Robert Richardson (JFK, Platoon) could have used more of the hallucinatory camera dazzle that Michael Ballhaus brought to GoodFellas. Except for one lusciously fluid sequence, which tracks the flow of cash from gambler to bagman, bravura touches are in scant supply. The fulsome detail, fascinating to pore over in Pileggi’s book (he also co-wrote GoodFellas), is hell on narrative momentum and distances us emotionally from the characters onscreen.
The actors try all kinds of tricks to compensate. Pesci, jamming a pen in a man’s neck, then shrieking like a bantam banshee, ratchets up the hard-on routine that won him an Oscar for GoodFellas. De Niro, basically miscast as the repressed Jewish outsider in a mob world, takes the eye-of-the-storm tack he tried as the Jewish film executive in The Last Tycoon. He simmers quietly, wearing 52 eye-bruising suits, ranging in color from salmon to pistachio, that are louder than he is.
Tony will be surprised that it is Sharon Stone who revs up the film with fire and feeling. It’s her best performance yet, with her legs crossed. The kick in Casino comes from watching Stone take on the raging bulls De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese. As Stone said recently, “They’ll let you be a prop, or they’ll let you play — it’s up to you.” Actually, she does both with sizzling effectiveness. At first, Scorsese uses her the way Hitchcock used Kim Novak in Vertigo — as an object of desire. Ginger is a hooker-turned-chip hustler with a yen for her former pimp, Lester (James Woods). Ace falls hard while watching her play craps for a high roller. It’s not the luck she brings the guy, it’s the defiant way she throws the creep’s chips in the air when he won’t give her a cut. There is electricity in the look Ace and Ginger exchange. She doesn’t love him, but Ace has the hubris to think he can mold her into a worthy wife.
Stone and De Niro turn Ace’s marriage proposal to Ginger into one of the film’s bristling highlights. Forget the romantic setting and music — this is a business deal. Ace gets his bombshell, Ginger gets money, jewels, security and a place on the Vegas society roster. What nobody gets is trust. A daughter is born, but Ace’s jealousy sends Ginger to alcohol, cocaine, her pimp and, finally, to Nicky, who brutalizes her sexually but provides the means to get back at Ace. Ginger’s breakdown lets Stone do a fuck-you chorus with pros De Niro and Pesci. She holds her own.
Scorsese parallels Ginger’s disintegration with Ace’s fall. There is rich humor in Ace starting a TV show from the hotel lounge to embarrass the politicians who denied him a gambling license. The plan backfires when it’s the mob that gets rattled. Ace’s need to play king loses him his queen, his pal, his mob support and his dream job. He wants the dream back.
So, to judge from the film, does Scorsese. Ace fusses over the details of running a casino, from a cheater’s posture to a few extra pounds on a showgirl, with the avidity Scorsese lavishes on every detail of creating a film. Scorsese is never more alert and inventive than when his camera is watching Ace watching the money. Scorsese and De Niro are both at their peak in these scenes. They are doing what they do best: working an obsession.
Casino ends in 1983, when Vegas becomes an adult theme park turning out antiseptic entertainment, just as Hollywood did after the 70s. Scorsese couldn’t care less about either. It’s the dying breed of the outlaw in Pileggi’s story that draws him in, the guys with suitcases full of cash and no last names and the guys like Ace who catered to their every whim as long as the odds stayed with the house. Shooting on location at the Riviera Hotel (called the Tangiers in the film), Scorsese revels in the decor, the clothes, the high-roller hospitality, the music (Robbie Robertson consulted on choosing songs from the likes of Dean Martin, the Animals and the Rolling Stones) and the rugged eloquence in the faces of Frank Vincent as a mobster, Alan King as a teamster and Don Rickles as Ace’s right hand. For a time, these cabbages were kings. When Ace and Nicky drive to the desert for a face-off, you can feel Scorsese reaching to link these urban goodfellas with the outlaws of the Old West.
Although Casino concludes Scorsese’s American crime trilogy on a note of elegy, the film never pays off as an outlaw Age of Innocence. It’s the glints of humanity — Ginger fighting for her life, Nicky pained to witness his brother tortured, Ace leaving his kingdom — that give the film its hypnotic hold. Whether or not Casino meets your expectations, it delivers the rush you only get from an audacious gamble. No movie lover worth the name would pass up the chance to watch Scorsese roll the dice.