What is it about Martin Scorsese’s wiseguys that so fascinates us? Film after film, Scorsese has explored the tragic and violent world of organized crime with an honest, respectful eye. Through his camera, these mobsters aren’t public enemies but just regular guys for whom crime is a way of life.
In Casino, Scorsese surveys Las Vegas and its mob connections during the 1970s. Though Scorsese has described Casino as an epic film about America, many critics have accused him of covering familiar ground. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, for though the movie may not be a masterpiece, to write it off as more of the same would be a miscalculation, as well.
If Casino does seem familiar, it isn’t just because of its ties to the mob. Scorsese has brought along his usual filmmaking team, both behind-the-scenes and on-screen. Robert De Niro is Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a sure bet in the gambling business who is sent by the Midwest mafia to run the Tangiers casino and hotel. Along to take care of the dirty work is Nicky Santoro, Ace’s short – and short-tempered – friend. As played by Joe Pesci, the character of Nicky is the only instance where Scorsese gets stuck in the mud. A violent hothead who kills with unabashed glee, Nicky is a carbon copy of Pesci’s role in Goodfellas, where his performance won an Academy Award. Nicky is a deeply disturbing character, but, like everything else in film, the impact isn’t as great the second time around. In an overplayed scene where Nicky stabs someone to death with a pen, we aren’t insulted as much by the unwarranted blood as we are by Pesci’s – and Scorsese’s – attempt to pull the same trick twice, Academy Award-winning or not.
But if Pesci is treading water, De Niro is breaking new ground. His Ace is friendly, humorous and at times almost sweet, a veritable contrast to the brutal thugs he has portrayed for Scorsese in the past. Through the mysterious means by which great actors work, De Niro can leave such vivid characters as Travis Bickle behind and turn into an entirely new man. Casino is further proof that De Niro’s true talent lies not in the performance itself, but in the metamorphosis he undergoes to get there.
Nicky is a deeply disturbing character, but, like everything else in film, the impact isn’t as great the second time around.
The film also offers sex queen Sharon Stone a chance to go legit in a serious dramatic role. (No, Sliver doesn’t count.) To her credit, she succeeds, primarily because she’s a perfect fit for the role. Describing Ginger, the casino hustler who captures his heart, Ace says, “They all loved her; how could you not love her?” Later, Nicky adds, “Ginger’s mission in life was money.” Counting more on Stone’s public persona than on her acting repertoire, Scorsese pulls off what could have been a casting disaster.
With these three tragic figures, Casino wants to be a cautionary epic, an underworld fable about the illusory happiness of money, power and fame. Yet for Scorsese, the “theme” has always served as a legitimate, adult reason to just grab a camera and have some fun. His passion is for the cinema of movement and life, not for that of messages and ideas.
Few filmmakers unleash the camera as often as Scorsese, yet even fewer know how to do it as well. The movie’s best sequence involves a series of cinematic “swish pans,” which reveal who watches whom in a casino – from the players to the dealers to the managers and so on – until the camera finally swings over to the security monitors up above.
Casino also makes use of another common Scorsese technique: extended voice-over narration. Here the story is told by both Nicky and Ace, a move that teeters between being enlightening and obtrusive throughout the film. As a result the story lurches, but even at three hours long, it never drags.
Casino’s extended use of narration is only an imperfection, but in its overblown depiction of violence the movie absolutely fails. A pointless scene with a man’s head in a vice is really no more shocking than anything else Scorsese has done in the past, but that’s the discouraging point.
Still, Scorsese is a filmmaker who demands our attention, whose movies contain sequences far more compelling than the most full-length films. With Casino, Scorsese once again takes a fascinating look at the mob, where the bad guys are heroes even if they fall in the end.