Martin Scorsese's Casino is often thought of as an inferior bookend to his masterpiece, Goodfellas. The same actors inhabit the screen, but Joe Pesci captured audience and critical attention with his psycho role in as a mobster in Goodfellas and left them wanting more. But when he sank back into the snarling, viciously violent bulldog-bad guy genre this time around, it gave a lot of people way too much. In other words, guns and butcher knives are acceptable murder devices. But using a vise for torture is just, finally, going too far.
It's a shame that this movie is given such short shrift because of its similarities to the impeccable Goodfellas, because Casino, is, in its own right, a damn good movie. Brilliant, in fact. Scorsese is a master in every sense. He marries character to plot and has an unflinching eye for not only the most repulsive aspects of our species, but also a generally unheralded talent for capturing brief-if-startling beauty. And his skills were able to fully present, in all its vainglorious aplomb, a Las Vegas that had already been destroyed. He understood that there was the thinnest patina of faux-class that made the city so appealing.
Back in the '70's the city was exactly like Sharon Stone's character, Ginger. It was dressed up, glitzed out, and entirely tempting. But underneath, at the core, Ginger -- and Las Vegas -- is still a greedy hooker-hustler. From the start, it was set for a collision course, with the very people who creat it. Like a snake shedding its skin (albeit a sequin festooned one this case) and eating its own tail, Vegas has an uncanny ability to slough off the dead components to keep itself alive. It's a process that repeats as the city ages, with different names filling in the blanks to catalogue the rise and fall of fortunes and all the different skins left behind. Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Frank Rosenthal, Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn. The details of the story change with each decade, and the setting reinvents itself in every incarnation. But at the heart of it, there's always romance, and heartbreak, and all that greed.
Scorsese tells the story of the mob rise and fall in Vegas through the fictional Tangiers, with Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) as the epicenter and architect of its success with mobster Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) as his would-be protector and the dame, Ginger, (Sharon Stone) who comes between them to help bring it all crashing down.
This is the last time, at least to date, that Robert DeNiro will be Scorsese's leading man, before the director turns his eye to Leonardo DiCaprio. It's also a film where Sharon Stone earns props more for her acting than for her body.
Filmed at the Riviera in the wee hours, Scorsese manages to do more than just capture the retro-feel of the '70s. He brings it to life. The Riviera is still an old-school establishment (make what you will of that statement) and its design reflects that. Though the Tangiers is fictional and the names are changed, the story is based on the life of Lefty Rosenthal, one of the most talented handicappers in history, and his co-hort, one of the most feared Vegas mobsters in history, Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, and the legend of the Stardust Casino.
By very definition, the material demands that the movie be both more gaudy and intricate than Goodfellas. Therefore, if Goodfellas is the renaissance masterpiece, Casino has no alternative but to tip into the baroque. And baroque it is. The sets, costumes, and violence escalate to nearly unbelievable heights, but that's precisely what stamps it as so authentic. What may appear outlandish can easily be traced by recent historical documents and verified to actually be true. Which is to say -- the infamous vise scene? It's not a construct of Scorsese's. It happened. The timing and confluence of events and certain characters are jiggered with to smooth the overall story. But the details are, frighteningly, real.
I think that's a part of the movie that dooms it even with plenty of Vegas aficionados. We like to swipe a veneer of romance across the past; people often talk about the old days before the classy call girl got turned into the cheap whore. But few of those people really want to think about the bloodshed that kept the machinery oiled back then.
When this film was released, in 1995, Vegas was mired in the grotesque throes of the family-friendly era. So while old-timers were lamenting the theme-parks sprouting up, this movie was an adrenaline shot back to the by-gone era of pure gambling and lights, but it failed to render the scene as dignified as some would like. Instead, it captures the whole story in all its panoramic excess. It doesn't just celebrate the shiny, sequined skin of the fresh snake, it shows us the terrible personal clashes that cause the skin to wither and die, and depicts the shedding in unrelenting detail. And that's exactly what makes it so breathtakingly, poignantly, and disturbingly Vegas.