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CASINO (1995)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, Don Rickles, James Woods, Kevin Pollack, Alan King

Adapted from the novel by Nicholas Pileggi

Nominated for one Academy Award:

Best Actress: Sharon Stone

Marking Scorsese and De Niroís tenth collaboration together (Scorsese hasnít always directed De Niro, but has served as producer in several films and even had an acting gig in one), the two once again make a powerhouse film, which is adapted by Nicholas Pileggiís novel, which was based on a true story (GOODFELLAS was also based on Pileggiís novel, in which he also help adapt and for his efforts, received an Oscar nomination alongside Scorsese). De Niro is cast perfectly as Sam ĎAceí Rothstein, a smooth talking professional gambler who, by the powers that be, is positioned in Las Vegas to run a casino by his mob bosses to scam the joint of millions upon millions of dollars. Referred to as GOODFELLAS in Las Vegas, Scorsese and Pileggi have created one of the 90ís most criminally underrated and complex portraits of a mans rise to power an fortune, to his ultimate downfall due to the ones he loved and admired.

When you love someone, you've got to 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.

The film starts off with a bang, literally, as it opens in 1983 when Sam Rothstein calmly walks out of a restaurant, gets into his car, put the key in the ignition and have the car explode into a hellish array of flames. The film then flashes back to the story of Aceís rise to the top of his game, from small time gambler to a powerful casino manager:

Ace narrating: Before I ever ran a casino or got myself blown up, Ace Rothstein was a hell of a handicapper, I can tell you that. I was so good, that whenever I bet, I could change the odds for every bookmaker in the country. I'm serious. I had it down so cold that I was given paradise on earth. I was given one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas to run, the Tangiers . . .

The first third of the film plays out like a documentary, with Ace narrating just how the casino he runs, the Tangier. It also shows his superiors making him the top man in Las Vegas to scam the joint (a gaming license isnít hard to get as explained by Andy Stone, since all Ace has to do is apply for a license, which means that while he waits he can still run a casino. And by any chance the Gaming Commission, which is seriously backed up, comes across his application, all he would have to do is change his position in the casino and continue running it). Weíre introduced to Aceís longtime friend, Nicky Santoro (Pesci), who is ordered by the bosses to look over Ace long before he ever ventured to Las Vegas. Nicky is a loyal guy, and though his appearance may prove otherwise, he is lethal, lashing out at anyone who rubs him the wrong way with brilliant fury.

Ace quickly adapts to the life in Las Vegas and to his responsibilities of the casino, and hires Billy Sherbert (Rickles), as his personal manager. As Ace describes the city of bright lights and snazzy signs:

For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins. It's a morality car wash. It does for us what Lourdes does for humpbacks and cripples. And, along with making us legit comes cash. Tons of it. I mean, what do you think we're doing out here in the middle of the desert? It's all this money. This is the end result of all the bright lights and the comped trips, of all the champagne and free hotel suites, and all the broads and all the booze. It's all been arranged just for us to get your money. That's the truth about Las Vegas. We're the only winners. The players don't stand a chance. And their cash flows from the tables to our boxes through the cage and into the most sacred room in the casino the place where they add up all the money the holy of holies the count room.

However, love does not elude Ace as he falls for big time con artist and hooker by the name of Ginger (Stone), who is ripping off one of her male escorts in the casino the very first time we see her. Ace gives her the world and more, buying her jewelry and dishing out the cash left, right, and center. But though Ginger appears to be loyal to her new man and the well-to-do lifestyle he introduces, she still canít give up her old boyfriend and former pimp, the sleazy Lester Diamond (great performance by James Woods). Even marriage canít get her to stop loving Lester, even phoning him on her wedding day to Ace to tell him how much she loves him. But Ace, a forgiving man a man of high tolerance, rides it out that she still has a love for him. But he wrongfully believes that treating her like a queen will changer her heart and force her to love him.

Nicky makes the move to Vegas to make a business for himself, with or without the approval of the bosses, which always meet in the back of a grocery store in Detroit. But all the glamour of Vegas begins to get to Nickyís head, and he looks at Vegas as one huge money pot for him to dip his fingers in and take whatever he wants. His activities causes the heat to come down on Ace, who is already on the bad side of Vegas Senator Webb, whose incompetent nephew worked for Ace until he screwed up one to many times and was fired from the casino, despite Webbís attempt to get his dimwitted nephew back in the casino.

By the end of the film, we flash back to the opening sequence in which Ace car explodes which occurs. By this time, Vegas have taken its tragic revenge on those who have tried to rape it by exploiting and stealing from it, the most devastating victims Ginger and Nicky. A city that had already been soaked in sin and despair, and in the end, Ace sits alone and gazes ahead. He is the only one to survive Vegas and itís seduction of corruption unscathed.

Has the story of redemption of the soul been done before? Yes, which has of course been seen in Scorseseís GOODFELLAS, which the film has constantly been compared to. There are similarities in the two stories, but each film possesses its own unique quality of storytelling and execution. GOODFELLAS was a character portrait of a manís rise to the top of what he had always dreamed of being, and allowing those around him to cause his own downfall from grace, while CASINO relied on the deadly influence of the city Las Vegas, in which it symbolizes greed and death to those are attempt to take advantage of it. Many have also argued that Pesci is rehashing his GOODFELLAS character, but I once again disagree. Again, similarities are apparent, but while his Tommy DeVito in GOODFELLAS is a pure psychotic in every way, shape, and form, we understand Pesciís decent into madness in CASINO. When we first meet him, heís a small time crook whoís no different from those he works with. But once he reaches Vegas, the temptation to risk everything and milk the town dry is chilling to watch, as he would murder his lifelong friend just to secure what he has spent blood and sweat building. A business in which there are no limits: murder, betrayal, theft, insanity and desperation. He wonít stop, and eventually becomes a victim of his own selfishness and determination to obtain unlimited power, which drives him to his own demise.

Scorseseís direction is taut in every way, with each and every single frame of the picture coming across like a beautiful painting, always laced by the corruption of those who fill these beautifully shot scenes. The city takes on a life all its own, and to be honest, there arenít that many shots of the city itself (there are many shots of the casino, which to becomes a supporting character in which re recognize as corruption). Scorsese even makes the desert surrounding Las Vegas a brutal enemy, as De Niro narrates:

At that time, Vegas was a place where millions of suckers flew in every year on their own nickel, and left behind about a billion dollars. But at night, you couldn't see the desert that surrounds Las Vegas, but it's in the desert where lots of the town's problems are solved.

This beautifully foreshadows Ace and Nickyís fall from grace from each others loyalties, and the shots of the desert are eerie, as the camera moves ferociously forward towards the desert, which is basically an unmarked gravesite.

The performances from everyone involved are also extraordinary, with De Niro playing a man who finds redemption through the elimination of those he cared for. Those who tried to outsmart a casino and wound up paying the ultimate price. His performance is perhaps one if his very best, and once again reminds us what makes him one of the greats. Stone, by no means a talented actress, serves up the best performance of a lagging career, whose only success remains BASIC INSTINCT. Her portrayal of this doomed woman is terrifying to watch, as she digs her own grave with each passing scene in which she lies and betrays everyone around her. Her insecurity and self-hatred is sad to watch, and her mental and emotional breakdown towards the end is both pathetic and hard to watch, as she is the sole reason for her misery. She had the world in her hands, and threw it all away without knowing it.

CASINO may be familiar territory for some, and it is, but it comes across as fresh and brilliant for me. The wonderful cinematography, the stunning opening credits, the majestic score which is laced with a tragic note, the horrific costume design which gives the story an authentic feel, to the superb character development, I firmly believe this film is one of the 90ís greatest, and criminally overlooked films which has to compete with another classic film with GOODFELLAS, which to me is totally unfair. I admire this film tremendously, and hope that in the years to come, is able to stand its own without being judged in an unjustifiable manner. It is one of Scorseseís finest moments as a director and storyteller.

My Grade: A