In fascinating detail and with dazzling finesse, “Casino” lays out how the mob controlled and ultimately lost Las Vegas. Martin Scorsese’s intimate epic about money, sex and brute force is a grandly conceived study of what happens to goodfellas from the mean streets when they outstrip their wildest dreams and achieve the pinnacle of wealth and power. An extraordinary piece of filmmaking, the picture is rough and unflinching in ways that won’t be to all tastes and, from a commercial point of view, it is certainly open to criticism for its great length and unsavory violence. Film will be a must-see for cinema-savvy audiences , but will make heavy demands on more casual viewers, meaning that a major push by Universal, aided by some strong reviews, will be needed to make this a solid performer outside of upscale urban situations.
Announcing its far-reaching operatic intentions in a flamboyant credit sequence, the film is a Paradise Lost about low-lifes, a story of the big one that got away, the bookend to “Bugsy,” an ironic tale about how some highly individualistic criminals had the whole world in their hands only to fumble it and blow the game for themselves.
The film, based on Nicholas Pileggi’s contemporaneous book, covers a large story fraught with telling political, social and economic implications, but Scorsese and Pileggi tell it by concentrating on three central figures: Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a top gambler installed by the Kansas City mob to run their casino, which he does brilliantly; Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), Ace’s longtime best friend and impulsively violent enforcer who introduces street thuggery to the Vegas scene, and Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a veteran hustler who marries Ace for his money, falls into Nicky’s arms when she becomes unhappy and ends up helping to drag them, and the empire around them, down.
Beginning with a startling car explosion that seemingly blows Ace Rothstein sky high, pic expands on Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” technique of introducing his characters, their milieu and m.o. through a lot of fast-paced narration laid over descriptive, elaborate, docu-style evocation of vivid specifics.
Flashing back, a torrent of voiceover from both Ace and Nicky explains how it worked in their Vegas heyday of the 1970s, while a bunch of wonderfully quick and precise scenes reveal how money played in the casinos was channeled, counted , skimmed, stored, packed and quietly carried by suitcase back to the Midwest, where a small circle of old Italian mobsters happily counted their profits, which increased steadily under Ace’s strict guidance.
This first section plays as something like a nonfiction prologue to the story proper, a realistic foundation upon which the rest of the film can build.
Device reminds of nothing so much as Nicholas Ray’s underrated 1961 “King of Kings,” the first reel or two of which were basically a documentary of the politics of Palestine at the time of Jesus. Some might argue that such a structure stalls viewer involvement in the story, but Scorsese’s dynamic presentation of such mesmerizing material scarcely could be more engaging as a scene-setter.
It’s succinctly stated that the key link between the underworld and Vegas was the Teamsters union, whose pension fund was the only source of loans for building casinos.
In one amazing snippet after another, Scorsese defines the desert city’s sphere of influence by showing how the money flowed from the giant kitty down through to the gaming commission, the politicians, the dealers and the lowliest valet parking attendant.
For the crafty men like Ace who knew how to milk it, Vegas was “a money machine” as well as “a morality car wash,” a place where the criminal activities that would land them in trouble anywhere else made them not only successful but respectable.
Riding high and facing middle age, the loudly but impeccably groomed Ace decides it’s time he can settle down, but the woman he chooses is a pair of loaded dice.
In a picture that may feature Scorsese’s most astounding use of music yet, nothing can compare with his jaw-dropping introduction of Sharon Stone’s rocks-and-bucks obsessed Ginger to the accompaniment of the Rolling Stones’ “Heart Of Stone.”
Ginger capitulates to his marriage proposal when he assures her financial security for life, and while she tells him up front that she doesn’t love him, she’s less forthcoming about her continuing emotional ties to scumbucket druggie Lester Diamond (James Woods).
For some time, things are just too good to be true, but then the tide begins to turn. Banned from Vegas for his strong-arm methods, mad dog Nicky becomes a full-time thief. For firing a relative, Ace runs afoul of the cowboy county commissioner (L.Q. Jones), who then just waits for his chance to bring down Ace.
And Ginger begins bouncing off the walls, drinking, taking money, doing coke and dragging her little daughter off to L.A. to hang out with dissolute Lester.
As the boom begins to lower on all the characters, there is still an hour to go, and Scorsese moves from the rapid-fire, heavily narrated, music-drenched coverage of the earlier episodes to more protracted, dialogue-dominated dramatic scenes in which Ace, Ginger and Nicky, separately and together, play out their endgames. There is arguably a bit of lull around this point as the picture shifts gears, and certain scenes, such as Ace’s hosting of an inhouse TV show, arguably reduce the intensity level somewhat.
But the resolution of the characters’ intertwined fates is portrayed in electrifying fashion and seems very fitting in each case. Unlike “Goodfellas,” where the artistic point of view on the criminals’ actions was unsettlingly vague, Scorsese and Pileggi’s take on this bunch is worked out and expressed with the utmost rigor and clarity. Pic feels like the ultimate inside job on Vegas.
Scorsese’s technique here is dense, assured and utterly exhilarating. Lensed entirely at the Riviera Hotel casino and on other real locations, the film possesses a stylistic boldness and verisimilitude that is virtually matchless.
Aside from the obvious antecedents of the director’s previous crime films with De Niro, the experience of “The Age Of Innocence” would seem to have enriched “Casino” in the deep, analytical way in which Scorsese portrays a time, a town and a culture. This time, however, he understands the characters instinctively, inside and out.
In many ways, the picture reps a broadening and deepening of themes Scorsese has been dealing with for years. Similarly, De Niro’s outstanding performance touches a number of bases from his past, not only his outings for Scorsese but his reserved, businesslike, highly controlled Monroe Stahr in “The Last Tycoon.”
Sharon Stone is simply a revelation here. No part she’s had to date has made remotely such heavy demands on her, and she lets loose with a corker of a performance as the beautiful, unstable, ultimately pathetic moll with no inner life.
Joe Pesci has his act as the unpredictable, trigger-happy goon down pat, which is a bit of a problem. Pesci holds up his end of the picture perfectly well, but Nicky is basically the same character he won an Oscar for in “Goodfellas,” but with a shade less of an edge. What Nicky does is always interesting, but not terribly surprising.
Scorsese has mixed good actors with familiar Vegas personalities and very real-seeming older mob types to excellent effect.
Technically, “Casino” is virtually beyond compare, with Robert Richardson’s virtuoso camera taking every possible approach to making the material come vibrantly alive while bringing out the lushness of the locations, Dante Ferretti’s production design, and Rita Ryack and John Dunn’s great ’70s costumes.
Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is dazzlingly propulsive, as is the music and sound work overall. Deterioration of the relationship between Ace and Ginger is keyed to Georges Delerue’s haunting theme from Godard’s “Contempt,” also about the breakup of a marriage.