Scorsese’s back! No more The Age of Innocence or New York, New York getting out of character stuff; Casino is a Scorsese film through and through. As much as I love, and have been going on and on about, Scorsese stepping out of his comfort zone, I love it when he can nail the type of story he’s known for just as much. Casino is a really good film. It tells the story of two friends who have a rift in their relationship, and of course the classic Scorsese theme of falling from power. Where have those good old mafia days gone?
A lot of people knock this film for being so close to Goodfellas. I don’t feel qualified enough to comment on that since the only viewing I’ve given Goodfellas so far was about two years ago now and I didn’t like it. Why? I don’t even know, because everyone seems to like that film so I don’t know what my problem is. I need to see it again, and after watching Casino and loving it, I’m sure I’ll love Goodfellas too, right? (Everybody else is saying, well duh, everyone loves Goodfellas.) But from what I remember, the main character in Goodfellas wasn’t even half as likable as the main character here. I’d have to watch Goodfellas again to see if I remember it correctly, but as of my experience right now with Casino and Raging Bull for that matter, putting De Niro and Pesci center stage helps a lot. Sorry Ray Liotta. I’m sure I’ll be changing my tune soon enough.
One of the reasons Casino gets compared to Goodfellas so much is that they both give you an inside look at the mob that’s based on a true story, only this time, it’s about how the mob has infiltrated Las Vegas. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a man who knows how to place bets. He is put in charge of a casino in Vegas called the Tangiers, and makes sure the mob “back home” gets their share of the profits. The actual opening of the film reminds me a lot of Sunset Boulevard; we have some ironic voice-over narration telling us how the main character died (or came pretty close anyway). Sam gets in his car, and it blows up. He’s falling through flames and the title sequence begins. The title sequence is by Saul and Elaine Bass, and it’s excellent as always.
Now we have to figure out how Sam got himself blown up. We go back to the beginning, and the voice over narration kicks in again. Scorsese uses a lot of voice-over narration here, I mean a lot, and not just for the beginning but for the entire film. It was a bit annoying at first, but I got used to it pretty quick and ended up liking it a lot. It gives the film some of its best lines. We see how Sam and his best friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) got set up in Vegas. It’s all about the money, so they tell us. No matter what, they have to get the suitcases “back home” to the bosses with enough money in them. That’s their number one priority, and as long as they do that, they’re golden. Sam handles the day to day business in the casino, and Nicky handles the people that won’t pay up. They make a pretty good team, until they don’t.
There’s also Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a hustler that hangs around the casino quite frequently. Sam falls for her the minute he sees her, not only is she young, blond, and extremely pretty, but she personifies Vegas. She knows all the ins and outs, who to pay off, and most importantly, how to make everyone love her. When he first sees her, she’s laughing and throwing poker chips in the air. Sam eventually marries her, but neither of them are the most romantic type of people. They enter into it like a business arrangement. Sam gives her lots of jewelry that Ginger can use if she ever feels like she needs to get away from him. Sam puts a lot of cash in a safety deposit box, and gives Ginger the key. If he’s every kidnapped or something, Ginger is the only one who can save him, and that’s the way he wants it.
This is a level of trust you don’t see too often, especially not in Scorsese movies. Even if you’ve never seen a Scorsese film before, given the beginning of the film you can tell that not everything in Sam’s life is going to be so hunky-dory. That includes his marriage and his trust for his wife. He makes that age old “you’ll learn to love me once you marry me” mistake. Ginger is not the type of person to settle down, quit drinking, and start a family. They have a daughter, Amy, and when things go bad between Ginger and Sam, she suffers. The main problem between them is Ginger’s ex-boyfriend/pimp: Lester Diamond (James Woods). She keeps sending him money, and Sam’s not a big fan of it. Ginger’s used to providing for herself; she feels it’s demeaning for her to have to ask Sam for money now, but she does it for this Diamond guy. He is a total sleazebag by the way; I have no clue what Ginger sees in him other than maybe some leftover Stockholm Syndrome from when she was a kid.
Things go bad between the two of them, and I felt sorry for everyone involved, up to a point. Ginger can’t handle being with Sam, so she drinks more and more and neglects her daughter, and sometimes even endangers her. She does drugs right in front of her (the girl is about eight or so), and ties her to her bed so she won’t go anywhere while Ginger is out drinking. Sam may have been partially responsible for driving her to this, but I’m sorry, you do not tie up your kid. When Amy wakes up screaming and afraid, it’s Sam that unties her and makes sure she’s okay. For that, I was on his side. I don’t think I even would have been sorry if he had killed Ginger at that point; I’m serious. I tried to sympathize with her, I really did, but after that I just couldn’t. I think this is mainly what sets Casino apart from other Scorsese films. I guess I’m mostly thinking of Raging Bull here; how over time Jake gets more and more jealous and insecure, and it’s no fault of Vickie’s. Not the case here. Ginger is a real piece of work and it was interesting for me to not be on the woman’s side for a change.
Let us not forget the reason we are here. It is not to get married and have children, it’s to make money for the mob. Things get real messed up on that front too. Sam has to fire one of his casino people that happens to be a relative of some government official somewhere. The guy’s incompetent; the government official admits it himself. When Sam refuses to rehire him, his license (which he never actually had in the first place, he just kept applying under different titles to make sure he wasn’t caught) is in jeopardy. He wants to keep doing things the way he’s supposed to do them. He tries to get his license legally (or at least very close), but Nicky’s having none of it. He’s since been banned from casino’s and put in the “black book” for beating so many people up.
“No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he’ll keep comin’ back and back until one of you is dead.” Nicky’s sticks a guy’s head in a vice; he buries people alive in the desert. You don’t mess with Nicky, but you also don’t mess with the mob bosses back home. As long as they’re on the same page, everything’s fine. The mob doesn’t like Nicky going around crazy and beating everyone up, so he starts working around the mob, breaking into people’s houses and amassing control in Las Vegas. They’re not going to stand for that much longer.
The way the film wraps up is genius. Scorsese really nailed this one, in my opinion. There’s some truly amazing camera work in this film. There are lots of overhead shots, and for some reason I love it when there are tracking shots in hallways. I guess I can just notice it better. There’s a part where Ginger’s walking against a wall down a hallway that’s breathtaking. The acting across the board is great, there are many humorous moments, and the dialogue is fantastic as well. The voice-over narration got to me at first, but then I got used to it and I actually got to like it a lot. Like I said, Scorsese really nailed this one.
“When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars