Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, Drug Use and Some Sexuality
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, James Woods
The problem with putting directors up on pedestals is that we automatically expect something great from them. Sometimes they will go above and beyond to deliver a film that ranks among their best work ever. If I had to pick three films by Martin Scorsese that I would call his best work ever, they would be GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, and HUGO. All three are different, but they all showcase the love this man has for filmmaking and just how brilliant he can be at it. Then something like CASINO comes along.
This film came a mere five years after GOODFELLAS (which many hail as the number one gangster movie of all-time). CASINO came at a bad time. It was still on the heels of GOODFELLAS and some would probably consider it to be a bit of a sequel to that film. This would be a fair assumption, because a few of the actors from that film appear here and it rife with everything from the voice overs to the style. Even some of the soundtrack choices and the basic set-up of the movie are the same. It should also be mentioned that the same two writers who penned GOODFELLAS, also wrote CASINO and it shows. Does this make CASINO a bad movie? Absolutely not. It just makes it a poorly timed movie. It may be considered GOODFELLAS-Lite, but it’s still a phenomenal piece of work any way you slice it.
Mostly based on a true story, CASINO takes place from the 70’s to the early 80’s, detailing events that took place in a mob controlled casino. Sam is a successful sports handicapper and has been somewhat awarded for his efforts by a head position at a luxurious casino. In the confines of this building, a huge scamming operation is taking place. The mob is paying off the cops to look the other way, while they skim a bit off the top of the casino’s earnings. It’s a bit of a foolproof plan, but in the world of crime, one should always know better. Things begin to get shaky when a mob enforcer (and childhood friend of Sam) named Nicky is sent to protect Sam’s casino. Nicky’s violent temper begins to earn some unwanted attention. From there on, Sam finds love, Nicky’s temper brings down a world of hurt upon both of their reputations, and the intricately executed plan begins to fall to pieces in front of their very eyes.
If you were to watch CASINO in a double feature with GOODFELLAS, I’m willing to bet that the similarities would be uncanny. There are a few big differences in terms of the scale though. While GOODFELLAS was set over a period of decades, CASINO is placed within a space of about a single decade. Somehow, the film is packed with three full hours worth of material and GOODFELLAS was about 40 minutes less. Instead of two voice overs (much like in that other film), we are treated to not one, not two, but four different narrations that coincide with each other. Surprisingly, this technique pays off. We get both Sam and Nicky’s perspectives on the same situations, which makes for some slight laughs and steadily mounting tension as their friendship falls apart too.
Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci have shown in the past that they could play off each other as gangsters and their roles here are pretty similar to their roles in GOODFELLAS (not to keep comparing the two). De Niro is a calm, collected guy, but can also turn violent in the right situation, while Pesci is a psycho with a bad temper. The real standout here is Sharon Stone though. She was so aggravating as a hooker turned love interest turned back into pretty much a hooker that I was actually grinding my teeth at one point. I wanted to jump into my TV screen and end her. That’s how well she played the part of her character. James Woods also shows up as a slimy ex-pimp of Stone’s character and is appropriately scummy.
As far as the violence itself goes, the MPAA originally gave CASINO the dreaded NC-17 rating and some cuts were made to the gore. After watching this, I can safely say it’s very graphic and pretty disturbing throughout. I wasn’t expecting it to be as dark and gory as it wound up being, but this was a brutal movie (e.g. the final scenes with Pesci). The mark of a truly great film is that the viewer wants it to continue on, even after it’s done. This has happened to me on some occasions (namely THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) and it also happened with CASINO. I wanted the film to keep going, even as it neared the three-hour mark.
One might say that Scorsese was ripping off himself with this film, but to hammer the point that the movies are similar and different entities is that both films are based on real events regarding the mafia in two different locations. It’s crazy how the fall from grace can be so alike, even though the time period and mobsters themselves are different. Scorsese may have also single-handedly turned me off of visiting Las Vegas ever again (for fear of running into the mafia, which realistically could still have a hold in certain operations there). CASINO isn’t up there on the same level as GOODFELLAS, but it comes very close.