A Bit Of A Crapshoot
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1995’s gangster drama Casino reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods
After the atypical and rather delicate drama of repressed manners that was Age of Innocence, Scorsese once again turned to the world of organized crime for his next venture. Rather than setting the action in his beloved New York, Casino (as you might indeed expect) is focused entirely on Las Vegas, a naturally filmic location that suited the director’s hyperkinetic stylings and was a milieu that he of course was more than familiar with. Indeed, it had been a whole five years since Goodfellas repositioned him at the centre of art house fandom, so one would assume that a similar project, featuring most of the leads, culture and time period of its illustrious predecessor couldn’t fail, which it didn’t, of course. However Casino is as close as Marty ever got to making a sequel.
Robert De Niro once again assumes the role of an Italian, I mean Jewish, associate to the mob – but rather than playing a psychotic enforcer, he’s a numbers man. De Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein doesn’t seem that different to Jimmy Conway, although to be fair he doesn’t actually kill anybody. Rothstein, a skilled sports “handicapper”, is sent by the Chicago mob to Las Vegas to run the Tangiers Casino which they have ties to with the Teamsters. He quickly brings efficiency and control to the business, turfing out hustlers and doubling profits in the process. Family boss Remo Gaggi (Pasquale Cajano) for his part orders his minions to skim the profits from the top, while sending Sam’s mobbed up friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) his brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) and Frankie Marino (Frank Vincent) over to Vegas as protection for Sam.
Nicky and his chums quickly proceed to create havoc, destroying goodwill and getting banned from every casino in Las Vegas, an issue that threads its way throughout the film. Rothstein meanwhile falls in love with serial hustler and ne’er do well Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) – they end up married, but thanks to a lingering affair with sleazebucket Lester Diamond (James Woods) it all comes unstuck in time. She seeks help and solace from Nicky, which, coupled with all the negative publicity from his behaviour, leads us eventually to the denouement.
Casino is a beautifully produced yarn that trumps Goodfellas simply through its bravura cinematic sweep – its broader, larger, even more garish and kitsch mise en scene is intoxicatingly lurid, his directorial flourishes and meticulousness welcomingly recognizable. As a historical document of the old, mob-controlled Las Vegas, it is unsurpassed – the details regarding gaming licences, Rothstein’s ensuring that the county commission, the Nevada Gaming Board, the police etc. are all paid off, are all wondrous insights into the corrupt system and how the mob ruthlessly pulled strings.
However at no point in the three hours running time do we ever really care about the characters, as they are too shallow, amoral or monolithic to analyse or connect with. Admittedly, in Goodfellas, I doubt anyone shed a tear when Tommy DeVito got whacked, or when Henry Hill’s testimony condemned his former cronies to death in jail. Key to that flick’s superiority was its cracking, highly quotable script, and its Lardner-esque characterization. Casino’s leads are all excellent, especially Sharon Stone (who had a thankless role), but despite its best efforts, there are no memorable lines in the movie, while Pesci’s turn, committed though it was, is a reheated Tommy minus the brittle humour. There’s also a fair amount of repetition in the movie, fleshing out a reasonably basic premise with recycled scenes of money laundering and processing that do seem a bit smug. And the assemblage of veteran actors who played the Chicago Outfit (particularly Pasquale Cajano) come across as a bunch of silly old clowns, such is their amateurishly bad acting. After this film, one would imagine that Scorsese wouldn’t have considered producing another narrated gangster biopic, but last year he did. To be fair there was a bit of a gap, which saw what appeared to be the end of the Scorsese / De Niro partnership from this entry onwards.
On the plus side it is quite a ride, even if it leaves you dazzled but none the wiser. De Niro is intensely measured, while Stone must’ve enjoyed wearing different garb in every scene while out-performing the two male leads (she was never better). You get to witness old Las Vegas in its tacky prime, all arid, wasted grandeur and sleek bad taste. And when the movie finally decides that enough is enough, we get a raft of grotesque murders (the mob didn’t want no witnesses when the game was up) which involves Frank Vincent’s character getting to reverse matters with Joe Pesci’s after what happened last time. In the end, Rothstein gets away with it, even after being blown up in his car, but he has learned nothing, and neither really do we. But this is still classic Scorsese, daring in its vision, taking chances, and above all not being concerned with providing anything that could be construed as a message.
It’s even a wee bit comic-book-ish in places, even if it does attempt to dispense with convention. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well