‘Casino’ is a gritty, if overly long, look at the mafia and Las Vegas

Joe Pesci is a cold-hearted mobster in 'Casino'
Joe Pesci is a cold-hearted mobster in ‘Casino’

Let me start off the bat by saying that I’m not a fan of gangster movies. They can be entertaining, but I don’t particularly care for them. I can appreciate the beauty of The Godfather, but the story itself isn’t particularly appealing.

Goodfellas is a little different, in my mind, because it is a far more interesting film and is a grittier, more realistic view of the mafia. Where The Godfatheridolizes, Goodfellas demoralizes. Martin Scorsese created a style and tone that has been ripped off and copied time and time again since then. Part of this is why I think he made Casino, the film which I’m here to discuss.

This over-drawn film about the fall of the mafia-owned Las Vegas in the late 1970s and early 1980s is not a sequel in any way to Goodfellas, but a follow-up of sorts. It shares that first film’s tone and style, but done to excess, like the very town it honors. Rampant with voice-overs that switch between characters, mostly Robert DeNiro’s “Ace” Rothstein and Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro, the first forty minutes is told largely through narration.

Casino is a true story, even though the names of the main characters have been altered. Rothstein (DeNiro) is sent down to Las Vegas from Chicago to help run the mob operations there. After the mafia buys the Tangiers hotel/casino, Rothstein is put in charge, and quickly doubles and triples the hotel’s profits (and by default, the mob’s). But when on old friend and vicious killer, Nicky, comes to Las Vegas, Rothstein’s clean world begins to go sour. Things get more complicated when he falls in love with Ginger (Sharon Stone), a hustler and drug addict.

I may have simplified the story a lot there, but the specifics get complicated. Perhaps that’s why the first forty minutes of the film are spent doing nothing but explaining how the mob owned Las Vegas, how they get the money from the casinos, and how Rothstein and Nicky ended up living there. The story doesn’t really get started until we meet Ginger, the shallow hustler who Rothstein falls for head over feet (and marries against his better judgment).

It is when things begin to unravel for the main three characters that Casino starts to get interesting. Vicky’s downward spiral, Nicky’s self destruction and Rothstein’s arrogance. With a three-hour running time, Casino can be a chore to watch. It actually does manage to move along, but the first forty-minutes can be a little difficult. The massive amounts of information and voice over you get inundated with can get a little dry after a while. But I think when you really start to get tired of it the story actually begins, even if it is a slow start.

DeNiro is, of course, DeNiro. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’re really seeing anything in this performance that we didn’t see in Goodfellas. I think this is one of the reasons that DeNiro turned away from these kinds of roles in recent years. Pesci also plays a similar role to the one he delivered in Goodfellas, although it is perhaps darker and more violent. But this was really the beginning of the end for Pesci, I think. His face is so horribly taped up throughout the film to make him look younger. I think it was Pesci’s inability to show he had more range that lead to him basically vanishing from Hollywood. Still, I don’t think anyone does dangerously deadly like him, even if it has become a bit cliché now. Sharon Stone is also excellent in what is probably the most dramatic role she ever played. Oddly enough, her star dimmed shortly after this film, as well.

The Casino Anniversary Edition is, honestly, quite excellent. It features a few deleted scenes and a limited audio commentary with Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, the man who wrote the book and co-wrote the script. But the meat of the special features comes in the documentaries, such as the behind the scenes featurettes, which are great. Pileggi offers some terrific anecdotes, and Scorsese seems to be hesitantly honest about how the film was perceived by audiences.

What really struck me was how Scorsese discusses the parallels he felt existed between Casino and Hollywood during that same era. How the studio system had collapsed, and maverick young filmmakers were given the opportunity to make big Hollywood features. That’s what he was showing in Casino, that there was an era when Las Vegas represented an opportunity for small time crooks to become major players in the underworld. And like with Hollywood, that time came to an end, and very likely will not come around again.

This struck me because I had recently seen the excellent documentary, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls on cable, which explores this time in Hollywood history. When Scorsese said this, and I watched the film again, it honestly caused me to look atCasino a little differently.

The DVD is rounded out by two documentaries from cable that discuss Vegas and its history with the mafia, as well as the true story behind Casino. That one was produced by the History Channel, and is quite excellent.

What kills Casino is its length. Was it really necessary for it to be three hours? Perhaps, but its that first forty minutes that makes it so difficult. The audience is forced to wait so long for a story to actually show itself, that they’re less likely to give it a chance, even though it does deserve one.

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