Casino (1995)

Lets tell a true story, shall we?: Back around 2001, I remember my older brother coming home with a number of  VHS tapes (during a time when DVDs were creeping in and tapes were on their way out.  Therefore VHS was getting cheaper), He may correct me on this introduction, because it was long ago and I was too drunk on puberty to recall very much of it, other than he got them in Makro.  But what he brought home that day was for me, pretty life-changing.  A collection of brilliant movies, including Goodfellas, Resevoir Dogs, Donnie Brasco, The Shawshank Redemption and Casino.  Through these films, I learned a great deal at that young age:  I was introduced to the work of some fanatical nut-job named Quentin Tarantino.  Then I found out that the smaller burglar from Home Alone was actually an iconic actor in Gangster movies (Goodfellas and Casino).  I saw that Azeem from Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves was actually too awesome to be true (Shawshank Redemption), and I learned new words like fuhgeddaboudit and fugazy, and how to use them properly (Donnie Brasco).

Out of all of them, and after all these years, Casino stuck out like a splinter on a bannister.  Not because it was the best movie from those VHS tapes, but because it was the only one I didn’t finish.  Years went by, Blu-Ray came out and HDTV can now reveal the colour of Joe Pesci’s eyes.  Unless an ultra-rare film or tv show or a family/friend memory is on a VHS tape, it’s unlikely that anybody is going to watch something in that format.  Thankfully, I found this film on TV recently, and I can now say that I’ve watched Casino the whole way through. So how was it?  Well…

One plot device that Martin Scorcese has used incredibly well is the “Rags To Riches” story, which under his direction can be renamed “The Fun Road To Hell” story.  By using it as his foundation, he has provided us with excellent morality tales that demonstrate the amazing highs and lows that come from working in Organised Crime (Goodfellas) the Stock Market (The Wolf Of Wall Street) and in the case of Casino, Las Vegas.  Our film stars Sam “Ace” Rothstein as our leading man, who is based on Frank Rosenthal and is played by Robert De Niro (in what was unfortunately his last role to date with Scorcese).  He is a professional handicapper, Casino Executive and Italian Mob Associate (even though he was Jewish) who was hired to basically run the Tanglars Casino (which doesn’t exist in real life).  The other main characters include Nicky Santoro, a mob inforcer based on Anthony Spilotro and played by Joe Pesci, and Ginger McKenna, Ace’s wife, played by Sharon Stone (in what was easily her best acting role).  Nicky’s role is to pretty much make sure that the casino pay their “protection money” to the Italian Mob in Kansas City, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.  While Ginger was a hustler who Ace fell for.  She’s a former prostitute who still has feelings and/or care for her ex-pimp Lester Diamond (played by James Woods), and…lets just say that small detail is only 1 of several MacGuffins.

I mentioned this being a morality tale didn’t I?  On the surface it would suggest that having too much money can be a problem, but the problem is actually on the selfishness behind the money.  Ace buys Ginger’s love with millions of dollars, jewellery and fur coats.  By giving her so much of these things, he is also buying her trust, and this is 1 of the problems with such a relationship.  When he gives her money, it’s almost like he is loaning it to her rather than giving it.  How she spends it bothers him and makes him paranoid (Possibly for good reason).  But in the process she has no real freedom, and lets just say by the 3rd act, she deserves that Golden Globe.  It also suggests that in such a risky business, scratching backs does go a long way.  If you could run a casino and make millions of dollars without a license by simply hiring the village-idiot relative of a higher-up, would you?

Something about Casino felt a little Déjà vu for me, to be honest.  Joe Pesci’s performance of Nicky is more or less him reprising his role as Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas and giving him a different name.  The relationship between Ace and Ginger reminds me a little bit of Jake and Vickie in Raging Bull, only with much more money involved and De Niro as the more level-headed one (or maybe they’re both crazy).

This film is notorious for its extremes as well.  It’s at number 5 for the most uses of f*ck in a film (With the Wolf Of Wall Street at number 2 and a documentary film about the f-word at number 1), and the amount of violence in this film, even today, really is excessive.  The gunshot kills look incredibly fake, but that’s the least of the worries.  There are a lot of loud, angry characters in this film, and while it has some great one-liners and descriptions, it wasn’t as funny as Goodfellas and nowhere near as funny as The Wolf Of Wall Street.  In the process, while the film made you feel like a bad-ass watching it in the 1st and maybe even the 2nd act, by the 3rd act it felt very uncomfortable.

What other things can be said about it?  It has an awesome, eclectic soundtrack, ranging from classical music to Blues to rock n roll to big band/easy listening, to Motown, to R&B (not Rap and Beats), to 60s rock, to 70s rock, and even Whip It by Devo.  The acting is phenomenal, even if it feels like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are playing characters that we’ve seen them do before.  Sharon Stone possibly steals the show.  Her breakdown is so powerful, it’s like she isn’t just acting as an addicted, scorned, furious, bitter, trapped housewife who used to have a life she enjoyed, it’s as if she is actually that person.  A truly uncomfortable, but quality performance.  The slightly more artistic cinematography is trademark Scorcese and he encourages that style very well.  The story is very good with some great dialogue.  But I didn’t get into it as easily as other Scorcese movies.  Apparently in the development they tried to simplify something as complicated as mob-activity in casinos, and while they did a good job, it remained complicated enough to receive an 18-rating without the sex,language and violence on top of it.  And keep in mind, this is a 3 hour film, trying to keep up with what was happening on screen got a little tiring by the third quarter.  No doubt, Casino is excellent, but it’s not my favourite Scorcese film, and it’s far from my favourite gangster film.

10/10 for the acting, 8.5/10 for the story, 10/10 for the music, 9/10 for the cinematography, 8/10 for the characters.  Overall: 91/100.

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