"Casino," the story of how the mob won and lost Las Vegas, proves two points so conclusively you can take them, so to speak, to the bank. One is that Martin Scorsese is a master filmmaker, so skilled in the manipulation of imagery he might be the most proficient of active American directors. The other is that despite his dazzling ability, Scorsese is finding it increasingly difficult to make his personal obsessions accessible to an audience.
Based on the fascinating nonfiction book by Nicholas Pileggi (who co-wrote the script with the director), "Casino," at three hours and change in length, is clearly meant to be a major statement, a film whose dark vision of a society driven to disaster by money, violence and pride is supposed to echo in the American consciousness like "The Godfather."
For Scorsese, "Casino" is familiar territory in a number of ways. It stars two of his trademark actors, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, as boyhood friends Sam (Ace) Rothstein and Nicky Santoro, who end up controlling Las Vegas before a rivalry for Ace's wife, Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), ruins the party.
It is also a return to the hard-guy life the director loves to chronicle, the specifically Italian American milieu of "GoodFellas" and "Mean Streets." Plus it continues Scorsese's deeper fascination with volcanic men inevitably exploding into deadly violence that encompasses films as diverse as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "Cape Fear."
In "Casino," however, that attraction feels increasingly like the working out of a private fantasy in a language only the director can appreciate. Despite Scorsese's great skill, he makes too few emotional connections to persuade us to see things the way he does. So instead of being operatic and cathartic, this film ends up exhausting and claustrophobic.
"Casino," the film, has an intrinsic interest because it is a fictional reworking of the remarkable true story Pileggi tells in his book, which details the rise and fall of the real-life models for the trio of lead characters: gambler and Stardust Hotel honcho Frank (Lefty) Rosenthal, his wife, Geri, and the explosive Anthony (Tony the Ant) Spilotro, a man so violent, said an acquaintance, "he dared you to murder him."
"Casino" opens promisingly, as Scorsese sets the scene for the drama to come with a spectacularly cinematic three-quarters of an hour that introduces his protagonists, details how the casino system operates and outlines their position in it. Using elaborate tracking shots, montages, flashbacks within flashbacks and two competing voice-overs (one from Ace and the other from Nicky) that continue throughout the film, Scorsese conveys a great amount of information in an intense, concise, breathtaking way.
Ace Rothstein (De Niro) is a gambler of legendary skill who even checks wind velocities (for their effect on field goal attempts) before betting on football games. The mob in the Midwest calls Ace the Golden Jew and in the early 1970s sends him out to Las Vegas to manage its newly acquired Tangiers Hotel and Casino. An unflappable perfectionist who cares how well-distributed the berries are in blueberry muffins and dresses in coordinated pastels (one outfit even matches his bottle of Mylanta), Ace loves Vegas because "it's like a morality carwash," a place where a gambler and bookmaker like himself could be transformed into a solid citizen.
At the Tangiers, as Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" plays on the soundtrack ("Casino's" taste in music is impeccable), Ace trades glances with the glamorous Ginger McKenna (Stone) and that is that. Even though he knows at once that she's a hustler and an operator and soon finds out that she doesn't love him and is obsessed with sleazy ex-boyfriend Lester Diamond (James Woods), marriage is just a matter of time.
Also headed to Las Vegas is Nicky Santoro (Pesci), sent by the bosses in the Midwest to make sure that nothing interferes with Ace's ability to make money. A professional thief and thoroughgoing psychopath, Nicky soon sees his way clear to becoming the town's de facto boss, though his penchant for violence conflicts with Ace's desire for respectability. And when Ace and Ginger start their predictable decline, Nicky inevitably gets involved.
It is the worsening of that marriage, never more than a fiscal union, that hijacks this film. As Ace and Ginger scream and beat on each other, as she turns to drugs and alcohol and he becomes more paranoid and inflexible, "Casino," as if transfixed, follows their every move, losing momentum and wandering down a repetitive path where few will want to follow.
"Casino" also gets increasingly violent as it goes on. Much of the violence comes from Nicky, who turns simple tools like a pen and a vise into murderous weapons, but, especially at the film's finale, several other people get into the act, administering a series of stomach-turning beatings. The question is not whether the violence is accurate, which it seems to be, but whether making audiences cringe is enough of a reason to include it.
One of the ironies of "Casino" is that even though Scorsese is interested in the story's wider implications, he focuses so much energy on that unsavory romantic triangle that he and the film lose sight of the larger issues. It would be worth knowing, for instance, that in real life the model for Ace's character ended up controlling four casinos for the mob, but if the film does mention that, it's easy to miss.
None of this is the fault of the actors, all of whom, from supporting players like Woods, Don Rickles and Alan King, to the stars, perform faultlessly. Since both De Niro and Pesci, skilled as they are, essentially reprise previous work, the film does the most for Stone, who displays star quality and a feral intensity that is the equal of what the boys are putting down.
Frustrating as it is to see such a skilled filmmaker working on material with so little intrinsic interest, as long as auteur directors remain absolute rulers little can be done about it. It's the current Hollywood system, and as visitors to Las Vegas inevitably find out, the system can be awfully tough to beat.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong brutal violence, pervasive strong language, drug use and some sexuality. Times guidelines: An attack with a pen, a head squashed in a vise and a series of brutal beatings are especially hard to take.
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Robert De Niro: Sam (Ace) Rothstein
Sharon Stone: Ginger McKenna
Joe Pesci: Nicky Santoro
James Woods: Lester Diamond
Don Rickles: Billy Sherbert
Alan King: Andy Stone
Kevin Pollak: Phillip Green
L. Q. Jones: Pat Webb
Syalis D. A. & Legende Enterprises present a De Fina/Cappa production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Martin Scorsese. Producer Barbara De Fina. Screenplay Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese, based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Costumes Rita Ryack, John Dunn. Production design Dante Ferretti. Art director Jack G. Taylor Jr. Set decorator Rick Simpson. Running time: 3 hours, 2 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.