Universal // 1995 // 179 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // October 13th, 2008
No one stays at the top forever.
Martin Scorsese made the definitive gangster film with Goodfellas, and several years later, went back to the well to see if anything was left when Casino was made. The film earned some acclaim, though not that of his earlier work. With that said, now that it's on high definition, what's the story, morning glory?
Nicholas Pileggi, who collaborated with Henry Hill and wrote Goodfellas with Scorsese, wrote the screenplay for this film, which is inspired by the events surrounding Frank Rosenthal and the mob's presence in Las Vegas during the '60s and '70s. Rosenthal is fictionalized as Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro, The Good Shepherd), a man who made millions for the mob, initially through gambling, but when he was sent to Las Vegas, he oversaw the day to day operations of a casino where his moneymaking proved invaluable. His longtime friend Nicky (Joe Pesci, Raging Bull) was enlisted by the mob to help protect him and serve as muscle for him, but he eventually found his own operation. Ace was calculating when it came to working with the odds, but in Ginger (Sharon Stone, Action Jackson), he felt that he could take a chance, and rely on luck, like everyone else in Vegas, which was ironic since Sam's operations and mindset used odds and exactness in every possible way. Ginger's addiction to drugs and alcohol, and a nagging boyfriend in Lester (James Woods, Any Given Sunday) that she gave money to helps start a downward spiral for Sam, Nicky and Ginger.
Scorsese said something awhile ago in regards to Casino that I've always liked and will attempt to paraphrase. Where Goodfellas takes the viewer is one where they can become easily enamored by the mob lifestyle, and Henry Hill serves as the conduit to it. You're able to be swooned and fall prey to it, and when you see it become detrimental, then the conduit chooses to leave, and the film helps chronicle him trying to get out of it. Casino is a little bit different, as the characters are all grownups, and they're acutely aware of the choices they make. There's glamour in the sense that everyone enjoys the lifestyle they're able to lead in Las Vegas, but there's no moment of redemption or no moral epiphany that tells them that they should no longer do what they're doing. There's no happy ending here because not only is that the accurate choice to make, but in addition the characters really don't deserve one.
Take for instance, the first scene between Ginger and Sam. They kiss, and leaves to presumably powder her nose. Sam gives her some money, more than he was expecting to I'm sure. But instead of watching her go to the restroom, we see her routine of tipping people and the way she's been able to make money from old gamblers is shown. We then return to Ginger returning to the table with Sam, and he's surprised that with all the money he gave her, he didn't get any change. That's the portent of things to come, when at first you might be marveling at the way Ginger carries herself. It's that technical wizardry by longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker which makes scenes like this, along with the ones shot by Robert Richardson (Natural Born Killers), something to behold on the technical side.
As far as the biggest name behind the camera, Scorsese certainly does do many of the things that make him arguably the best director in recent memory, but like a lot of things in the film, things get tiresome after awhile. There's a few shots that are impressive early on, but after awhile as the material flounders, the shots and style seem to be an unsuccessful way of trying to save the film. It's not to say the film flounders, because I don't think that that's much of the case here, but we all know what's coming to these characters on the first go round, additional theatrics aren't necessary.
Technically, Universal uses the same 2.35:1 widescreen presentation from the HD DVD, which was done with a VC-1 encode. Combining the Vegas lights with the fashion of the times, the color palette translates very well, without any noticeable bleeding or artifact issues. Blacks are deep, as is the necessity since most of what occurs is done in shadows, but the hot whites from the original film are accurate and look good. As far as the sound goes, the DTS HD Master Audio Lossless 5.1 soundtrack is excellent. Music is in much of the film and it sounds clear and spans over a solid soundstage, with dialogue firmly planted in the center channel. There's very little speaker panning or directional activity, but the dialogue sounds strong and doesn't require a lot of adjustment. It's better than expected.
For the Blu-ray release, Universal takes the smaller featurettes from the Anniversary Edition and combines them all unto the U-Control piece on the Blu-ray release, which the HD DVD didn't have. Much of that material is repetitive from the commentary with Scorsese, Pileggi and others contribute, but other portions of it include documents from the film, like script to scene comparisons, and decisions made in the film are discussed a bit as well. All in all it's a pretty boring piece. The commentary track is called "Moments" with Scorsese, Stone, Pileggi, and it's a little underwhelming I think. Scorsese discusses the allure of the material to him, while Pileggi discusses research on the book and how the real-life figures eventually warmed up to him. Scorsese discusses the occasional production challenges, while the cast participants share their thoughts on the director and on the production itself. It's a decent track, though hardly spectacular. From there, four deleted scenes (2:59) don't really include anything of note, while "Vegas and the Mob" (13:42) is an NBC News produced piece which covers the historical aspect of the era, which shows the origins and transformation of Las Vegas, from the days of Bugsy Segal onwards, and some interview footage with the real-life Rothstein, a.k.a. Frank Rosenthal. "History Alive" (43:45) is a piece that originally aired on the History Channel which is rife of dramatizations which were obviously movie-inspired, and includes biographical info on Pileggi and on the figures themselves. It does help fill in the gaps and worth the time.
Story aside, Casino remains a successful pairing to Scorsese's mafia films and doesn't flinch in the brutality that its characters commit, and revels in it. Again, this is in part because of the fatalist tendencies of just about every grown up who isn't a police officer or attorney. In a sense, it's their destiny. On the supplements side, it's pretty much identical to the Anniversary Edition, and technically it beats the HD DVD for the DTS-HD track, and to the standard definition disc because, well, it's just standard definition. For the HD DVD owners, go again at your discretion, but for those who don't have a high def copy on their shelves yet, this is the one to get.
Looking at it from strictly a high-definition point of view, I'd have to acquit the defendants, but creatively they are sentenced to a small community service term.
Review content copyright © 2008 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* French (Canadian)
* Spanish (Castillian)
Running Time: 179 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* U-Control Feature
* Deleted Scenes
* Vegas and the Mob
* History Alive: True Crime Authors: Casino with Nicholas Pileggi
* Moments with Martin Scorsese, Sharon Stone, Nicholas Pileggi