To find out more about the IMDb 250 Challenge I am undertaking, you can go HERE to see my blog post on my cinematic odyssey.
I realized rather quickly that I need to be linking you to the IMDb page for each movie as I review them. This week’s first movie was one I actually watched last week. It’s Martin Scorsese’s classic film that juxtaposes the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas with its dark and violent underpinnings; Casino.
A quick warning: This movie is NC-17. Those with easily-offended cinematic sensibilities, I would not recommend this movie. For those looking to engage in the story of this gritty classic, venture forth to the gaming floors of the Tangiers with me and Robert DeNiro.
Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci star in this movie as Sam “Ace” Rothstein and Nicky Santoro, childhood friends from Chicago. Sam being the savvy, good-luck gambling handicapper turned Casino boss, and Nicky being the out-of-control, psychotic mobster. In one of the more disturbing scenes in the movie, Nicky shows his fits of murderous-rage when he stabs a guy repeatedly with a pen after the man had insulted Ace. The other major stars include Ginger McKenna, played by Sharon Stone, who is Ace’s girlfriend and then wife and James Woods playing the mooching, slime-ball pimp Lester Diamond, Ginger’s ex-boyfriend that she just can’t let go.
Although the milieu by the time Casino came out in 1995 was already done (Godfather, Goodfellas, etc.), the story is an excellent journey of how the gangster-glorified attributes of ambition, lust, power, and greed slowly warped three individuals into a hollow, dark shell of who they once were. The story is a Greek tragedy wrapped in the clothing of Las Vegas-style excess and mafia ruthlessness. For those who might find the violence too much to ignore, I implore you to look past the outer shell of the violence and drugs and to see the story as one that shows how the vices in this movie lead to decisions that ultimately lead down a path of ruin and destruction. As the movie climbs and climbs and you see the decay of Ace, Nicky, and Ginger, eventually the climax is late in the movie in a violent, Mob-ordered wholesale kill off by of many of the characters in the movie. The movie has very little descending action once we reach that climax. After the movie ends with the DeNiro voice over proclaiming, “And that’s it,” I was left with a fresh impression of the whole movie’s buildup to the final twenty minutes and left in a stunned reflection of how it all had to end this way.
Although the move is quite long, clocking in at just under three hours, it delivers a hard, dark look at Las Vegas and the mobster life that does not feel long. Despite there being a lot of narration, which some people do not like but I enjoyed, the story still flows and stays interesting and has compelling points of tension and pathos.
Some critics say this movie lacks the ability to address characters, but I find this movie is heavily driven by its characters. This is why I am diverging from my normal habit of breaking down each of the five points and breakdown the three main characters of the movie, Sam Rothstein, Nicky Santoro, and Ginger McKenna.
Sam “Ace” Rothstein
Ace enters the story as the confident, expert gambling handicapper that is adored by the Italian Mob bosses. They see him as a golden boy who can run the Tangiers and make them all a lot money. Early on, he proves his mettle as his eye for maximizing profits and cold and ruthless business style lead to profits at the casino to climb and the mob enjoys piles of money skimmed off the top. His life only gets better as he meets the beautiful, vivacious Ginger McKenna, a hustler who takes advantage of the lust-minded high rollers of the casino. Ace woos her and eventually convinces her to have a child with him and marry him, as well. They move into an incredible home right next to a Country Club and golf course, Sam accepts accolades from the local press and government for his success, and life is incredibly good.
However, things do not stay good for long as his ideal, high-living, business-booming lifestyle begins to unravel. We get a view of how things go sour when he fires the inept slots manager, who is the in-law of a state congressmen and has swing with the state gaming commissioner. This leads to him having a spottier reputation with the big players in town.
Ace’s bigger problems stem from his own personal life, as his best friend Nicky starts to gain a reputation as a violent thug and his wife Ginger sinks deeper and deeper into greed, drugs, and deception.
Nicky Santoro comes to Las Vegas at the behest of the mob bosses to watch over Ace and make sure he is taken care of. Pesci’s character is one of paradox, as he is a ruthless, violent man (see the pen stabbing scene) but is a rabidly loyal family man who loves his son and never fails to be home every morning to make pancakes for his son. He comes to Vegas with the ambition of turning into “his town” and starts scamming at the Tangiers to make money (Ace does not like this but he is powerless to stop it, as he knows Nicky is sent by the bosses to protect him). When Nicky gets banned for that activity, he turns to more illicit gains and begins roughing up drug dealers, stealing jewelry, and extorting everyone in sight.
Nicky is really the catalyst for Ace’s business downfall. His ultra-violent tactics combined with his greed for power and authority attract too much attention to Nicky and in turn, Ace. Nicky even elbows in on Ace, taking advantage of their friendship and angling in on Ginger. When Ginger’s spiral begins to get ugly, Nicky lends a listening ear that ends in them beginning an affair. There is a well acted scene well before they begin the affair where you can sense, without it being said, that Nicky already has the wheels turning on using his friendship with Ace to use Ginger. It’s awkward and tense and changes your view of Ginger and begins to enlighten you to Nicky’s sinister mind.
Sharon Stone is masterful in her performance as Ginger, Sam’s avaricious and wild wife. Ultimately, Ginger proves to be the true downfall of Ace. While Nicky compromises his business, Ginger compromises his personal life and his psyche, which leads to slip-ups in his business decisions and allows Nicky to weasel into his personal life, as well.
Ginger is wooed with money and glitz, which she uses to her full advantage in gaining privilege, and it is Sam’s mistake when he trusts her with his fortune and with his child. The one thing she cannot seem to undo is the grasp that her ex-boyfriend, Lester Diamond (a pimp and hustler), that plagues her decision making and enslaves her to his smooth-talking ways. At one point, she steals $25,000 from Ace in order to give to Lester, only to be found out and have Lester beaten savagely by Nicky’s crew (sans Nicky) in front of her. Her resentment for Sam and love-lorn bondage to Lester thrusts her to alcohol and drugs. Stone masterfully manipulates the camera and shows off Ginger’s mental instability and chemical-addled decisions through the moments when she ties her daughter to the bed in order to go out, to when she embraces an affair with Ace’s best friend.
In the end, it is not Ginger’s downward spiral or Nicky’s loose-cannon violence that does in Ace, but it is Ace himself. The story is ultimately about one man’s rise to power, what he does with that power, and how the power that was given to him is forcefully ripped away, all while he helplessly watches it all tumble down. Ace says that he loves Ginger, but if he really loved her, he would not continue to berate her to save face and would actually put all that aside to show her love and concern. He says he is friends with Nicky, but ultimately he does nothing but berate Nicky for ruining his business and putting the Tangiers in jeopardy. Ace is shown to not be the slave of some bad company, but to be attached to bad company because he is a slave to the power and authority he has been given. It is only by the mis-informed placement of a car bomb at the end that saves his life. The same luck does not befall Ginger, as her drug addiction consumes her and she dies of a cocaine overdose. Nicky ends up with the same fate as the other Tangiers employees and is beaten by his own crew and buried to death.
Casino is not the best gangster film ever. That title belongs to movies like the Godfather and Goodfellas, but it is definitely up there and is a very good movie. It’s not the violence and the constant dropping of F-bombs that makes it good, I actually could do without so much, but it is a real, dark, gritty look at the criminal world and how the allure of sinful pleasures like love of money and love of power bring about the complete disintegration of individuals.
I give Martin Scorsese and Casino a 9 out of 10.