Based on the lives of real-life mob associate and casino executive Frank Rosenthal, Martin Scorsese directs this 1995 epic crime film starring actor Robert de Niro (Heat, Cape Fear), who has worked with the director eight times before and will continue to work with him two more times after. Alongside De Niro, is actor Joe Pesci (Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale), who has also been known to have worked with both Scorsese and De Niro multiple times before and since. Joining both actors in an equally crucial role is the talented and beautiful Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct, Total Recall), who won two accolades for her performance in this film. Despite this, younger audiences may only know her from her infamous interview scene from Basic Instinct (1992).
The film is based on the book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas (1995) written by Nicholas Pileggi, who also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation.
In the 1970’s America, a talented sports handicapper and gambler, Sam “Ace” Rothstein (de Niro), grabs the attention of the Chicago Outfit crime syndicate after his skills become a valuable asset to them. They tap him to run the day-to-day operations of the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. The mob also sends made man and enforcer Nicky Santoro (Pesci), a friend of Sam’s since childhood, to make sure their take gets cut from the casino and the crime families in Vegas don’t step out of line. But as with all things in Las Vegas, you play the game long enough, you’re bound to start losing. Major problems start piling up with loose-cannon Nicky, Sam’s gold-digging wife Ginger McKenna (Stone), and the multiple government officials looking to take Sam down.
From the very beginning, you could already tell that everything is gonna go up in flames by the end of this movie. This is the story of a tragedy and the movie is about how the characters got there. Crime films are a familiar territory for Scorsese and you can see a lot of the same elements that made films like Goodfellas (1990) and Mean Streets (1973) critical successes. But the kind of excess and spectacle presented in Casino blows that all away, at least in terms of scale. It’s telling us that this is something else, a different face of crime. It’s a kind of exhibition of profusion that we won’t be seeing again from Scorsese until his 2013 comedy/crime epic The Wolf of Wall Street.
Despite my usual distaste for exposition, Scorsese is definitely the kind of director who knows how to the narrative device tastefully and his use of it in this film is no different. The first 30 or so minutes of film is heavily narrated, and narration also plays a large part of the story telling process throughout the film. The back-and-forth between Sam and Nicky is both entertaining and enlightening, especially since the narration is always coupled with stunningly captivating scenes of both the glitz and glam of Las Vegas and the criminal underbelly of the city.
Robert de Niro as criminal casino executive Sam Rothstein is frighteningly cold and calculated, but with a cool and confident swagger to him. Sam Rothstein is an awful human being. Not the most awful in the film, mind you, but he’s not a nice guy. And yet, with De Niro’s inherent charm and comfortably with the character, he convincingly plays a guy who you shouldn’t be able to sympathize with, and yet you do.
Joe Pesci is the face that you imagine when you’re thinking “mob enforcer” and his portrayal of made man Nicky Santoro in this film solidifies the niche he found playing mobsters in The Death Collector (1976) and GoodFellas (1990). In Casino, Pesci compellingly shifts between the role of loyal, sympathetic friend and unhinged, wrathful gangster. His short stature and wide build may seem like an aversion to the archetype, but Pesci makes it clear that Nicky means business. The only bad thing I could possibly say about Joe Pesci’s performance here is that it’s basically a rehash of his character Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas. But I honestly did’t mind that.
Sharon Stone steals the show with every scene she’s in. It’s one thing to play a character who constantly lies, but for an actor to undoubtedly pull off a role where every tear you shed should be noticeably fake but still convincingly real is something else entirely. Her character, Ginger McKenna, is the kind of person that’ll make your skin crawl but will also make you forgot about it every time she flutters her lashes. She a cold-hearted, spineless, and duplicitous human being that just loves to play the victim. Oh, you’ll love hating her. And if invoking an emotional response from the audience is basis for good acting, then I’d say that Stone deserved more than just a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for this role.
SPOILER WARNING STARTING HERE! GO WATCH THE FILM, THEN COME BACK! OTHERWISE, SKIP DOWN OVER TO CONCLUSION.
At its core, Casino is a tragedy. From the very beginning we know exactly where it’s going. The movies just tells us to sit back and enjoy the fabulous sequence of events that lead to Sam’s eventual downfall.
Through a brilliant use of narrative exposition, Sam tells us about the how his world works, how Las Vegas and their casino works. We’re told about how cheaters are dealt with, how someone is always watching, and how you gotta remember the cardinal rule of casinos: keep them playing and keep them coming back because the longer they keeping playing, the more they lose. In the end, only house gets it all.
All these points cleverly play into the demise of Sam’s empire throughout the whole movie. The point about how, in a casino, someone’s always watching everybody, plays into how the FBI was watching the characters and all their associates, waiting for them to make a wrong move. The Feds eventually got what they wanted when Frankie (Frank Vincent) spilled the beans on the criminal activities going on at the Tangiers.
The point about cheaters that Sam made in the beginning loosely mirrors how Nicky eventually got his in the end. His deception of his best friend, his adulterous relationship with Ginger, and his insatiable greed and pride eventually got him and his brother killed in gruesomely satisfying fashion.
But the best point is shown when the story about cardinal rule of casino mirrors the individual downfalls of each of the main characters.
When Nicky is put on the black book and is banned from Las Vegas, he essentially has an out from working in the city and could very easily go home and tell the family that he couldn’t do anything more. Instead, he just couldn’t leave well enough alone and is tempted by the spectacle that is Las Vegas, setting off a chain of events that eventually leads to his death.
In the same note, Sam is very clearly offered an equally good position by the family when he’s relieved of his position from the casino by the gaming board. But again, he just couldn’t let it go and goes on a vendetta that leads to his fall from grace.
Also in the same vein, Ginger had finally reached the peak of her success after marrying Sam, but she just couldn’t let go of grifter ways and dark past, which lead her to a life of misery.
In a way, the characters were each drawn in by the blinding allure of Vegas. Even when they had reached a point where they could’ve taken their winnings and cashed out, they kept on playing. When they did that, they eventually lost everything because, much like Sam said, only Vegas wins in the end.
In the end, Casino warns of that age-old saying that “crime doesn’t pay”, a sentiment that’s usually underplayed or misinterpreted in most other crime dramas. Films like Public Enemies (2009) or TV Shows like Breaking Bad (2008-2013) supposedly play off the same idea, but they don’t send home the point as sharply as Casino does.
The film was, without a doubt, one of Martin Scorsese’s best works of all time. A large part of that is owed to the actors who were perfectly suited for their roles. No one could’ve done it better than De Niro, Pesci, and Stone. Casino brought us back into Scorsese’s dirty underground, but this time, it was coated in the bright lights of Las Vegas, and it’s no wonder why it’s regarded as one of the best crime dramas of all time, right up there with the likes of GoodFellas and The Godfather (1972). If you’re a big fan of either one of those films, I highly recommend Casino.