Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Casino'

 Robert De Niro as Sam Rothstein in 'Casino', directed by Martin Scorsese.

Robert De Niro as Sam Rothstein in 'Casino', directed by Martin Scorsese.

Beyond the visceral, in-the-moment thrills of gangster movies - the shootouts, the acidic dialogue, the displays of power - one of the most compelling things the genre can offer is a meditation on trust. When a low-level thug aspires to lead his own crew, which of his friends can he count on to get him there? Once he becomes the boss, do the guys he leaned on in the past hold true? And what about at home - in the world of organized crime, can a gangster ever rely on the people he loves?

These questions are the core of Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino, and for that matter, of many of the director’s works. A man may have ultimate power out on the streets, but it means very little if the person he loves betrays him. This fundamental equation humanizes the gangsters in Scorsese’s pictures, making us more likely to root for them, even when they’re shown committing horrible crimes.

This dynamic isn’t a new revelation about Scorsese’s filmmaking, but it’s essential to understanding why he keeps making movies in this genre. Perhaps a part of him feels that the mythological status of organized criminals in society still needs to be tempered - by continuing to expose the weaknesses of insidiously powerful people, and our willingness to cheer them on, we uncover a little more truth about ourselves.

As artistically valid as the approach is, it gets complicated when we consider the entertainment side. Does Scorsese make the same movie too often - or perhaps more specifically, did 1995’s Casino come too quickly on the heels of 1990’s Goodfellas? After all, the movies share much of the same DNA - a lead performance by Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci as an irritable mid-level crook, and a narrative driven by the downfall of a powerful (though not quite boss-level) gangster.

 Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna.

Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna.

The similarities between the two movies continue into the thematic side, too. Like Goodfellas, Casino deals with ethnicity, and how non-Italians working with the Mafia never enjoy the kind of protection that Italians do. In Goodfellas, both Ray Liotta and De Niro’s characters are outsiders (Irish-American gangsters), and in Casino, De Niro’s Sam Rothstein is a Jewish bookie/casino executive. Despite their many successes, the outsider characters in both films are soon abandoned by their bosses the moment any trouble with the law arises. Grounded as it likely is in fact, the ethnicity of the lead characters is an effective way to pile on some extra tension - they’re never really safe, despite all the services they do for their bosses.

The point the movies diverge is on where the characters place their trust. Goodfellas is arguably a more complex story - the runtime is split more evenly between Liotta, De Niro and Pesci’s characters, and there are more relationships to go sour. But in Casino, the key to the whole operation is the hustler named Ginger, played by Sharon Stone. Sam falls for her, and persuades her into marrying him, even though she makes it clear from the start that she doesn’t have the right feelings for him. All the same, they get married, have a daughter, and Sam entrusts Ginger with a hoard of jewelry and the only backup key to a stash of money meant to bail him out of a kidnapping. Even from these early scenes, you can sense that Sam might not make a great blackjack player: he keeps asking for cards while ignoring how they add up.

 Joe Pesci (right) as Nicky Santoro and Frank Vincent (left) as Frank Marino.

Joe Pesci (right) as Nicky Santoro and Frank Vincent (left) as Frank Marino.

Yet for all the energy (and runtime) the film invests in the central relationship, we end up learning little about what makes Sam and Ginger tick. We gets lots of evidence of Sam’s fastidiousness in business, but as Ginger’s betrayals mount, it gets harder to believe that Sam would overlook so much about her. You almost expect him to spin around and show how he’s been one step ahead of her the whole time, and it never happens. Is this due to the script, or to De Niro feeling too comfortable in his ‘Scorsese gangster” mode?

For her part, Stone gives one of the more committed performances in the film, gnashing her teeth and igniting some explosive screaming matches between herself and De Niro. Yet it’s also hard to pinpoint where the Ginger character goes wrong - we know she has a soft spot for her former pimp (James Woods), but she’s also very quick to put all her chips down on a relationship with Nicky (Pesci) when she has a chance. The film calls out for Ginger to explain herself a bit more, and the nearly three-hour runtime can’t seem to find space for it.

You can’t help but feel that Casino is an example of Scorsese coasting on techniques that were more effective or more memorable in his other films. Granted, even when Scorsese doesn’t push himself, the resulting film is better than most. But between the similarities to earlier films and the sometimes confusing decisions about what to include and what to leave out, it’s hard to rank Casino in the top 10 films by the director. It would be a stretch to call it a waste, but if you’re looking for something fresh, Casino isn’t the safest bet.

Casino gets three stars out of four.

Have you seen Casino? If so, what did you think? Does it have something different to say about gangster lifestyle or the history of Las Vegas? Or is it too much of a rehash? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!