No one stays at the top forever.
A vastly underappreciated movie, Casino is a grand, sweeping story of the rise and fall of a criminal empire, featuring Las Vegas in all of its glory as a backdrop and some of Hollywood's finest talent behind and in front of the camera.
Martin Scorsese is an undisputed talent as a director, but I think he is at his best when he works with the mobster movie genre. He takes great care not to sanitize or downplay the reality of organized crime, but crafts his movies with unforgettable characters, snappy dialogue, stunning cinematography and an absolutely top-flight soundtrack. Though many critics would point to GoodFellas as his best work in this genre, I would put Casino right up there beside it. Please don't deprive yourself of either movie's charms!
Thankfully, Casino did not make its appearance on DVD until the advent of RSDL (dual layer) technology. Though it may be a minor point for a home theater aficionado, getting up to flip a disc or put in another tape in the middle of a movie is a definite annoyance, but before RSDL came to pass it was an unavoidable problem for a long movie such as this. GoodFellas, unfortunately, was not so lucky, but I hope that Warner will see fit to re-release it as a RSDL disc so that I can add that great flick to my growing collection.
Casino opens with a bang, as Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) discovers a car bomb the hard way. We learn that this is the culmination of a ten year story, which he proceeds to lay out for us. The opening title sequence is worthy of a mention, as the brilliant use of operatic music gives you a sense of the epic story to follow.
Ace was set up to run a casino in Las Vegas, the Tangiers, by a consortium of Midwest mob bosses, on the strength of his infallible ability to make money on every form of gambling and oddsmaking known to mankind. This turned out to be a gangster's dream come true for someone in Ace's line of work, as he goes from being a bookie hassled by the cops to a respected businessman. It's a "morality carwash," as he puts it. Sent out to protect Ace and use muscle to enforce the mob bosses' will, "made man" Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) sees the untapped potential in Las Vegas for someone with his vicious talents. Once Ace hires casino pal Billy Sherbert (Don Rickles) as manager for the Tangiers, he gets down to work.
The first third of the movie sets up the whole story, as Ace and Nicky give us a sense of their life before Las Vegas and then what happened when they arrived in that capital of greed. This pair guides us through the workings of the Tangiers casino, including the layers upon layers of people each hustling for their own self interest, as well as the intricacies of the mob's operation and control of the casino through their agents, such as Teamster's Pension Fund chief Andy Stone (Alan King) and the figurehead boss of the Tangiers, real estate hustler Phillip Green (Kevin Pollak).
In the middle of his casino empire, Ace becomes deeply enamored of a beautiful hustler, Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), who makes a living by navigating the currents and layers of Las Vegas like a seasoned professional. As Ace puts it, a pro like her can keep a guy up for two or three days straight before he goes home broke to his wife and his bank examiners. Ace falls so deeply in love with Ginger that he is willing to lavish great wealth upon her if she will marry him, and simply trust her to grow to love him. Complicating their relationship is Ginger's former boyfriend and pathetic pimp, Lester Diamond (James Woods), who is dependent on Ginger for a steady income and for whom Ginger feels an unexplainable responsibility.
We also learn about the corrupt atmosphere of Las Vegas and the Nevada political scene, where the incompetent siblings of politicians are put on the casino payroll, where one such moron, Don Ward, is depicted in a small but funny role by John Bloom, AKA Joe Bob Briggs on TNT's MonsterVision show. Ace also shows us how to deal with small fry cheaters (in shockingly violent fashion) and with skilled high-roller gamblers (charm and guile).
Trouble begins when Nicky is banned from all casinos in Las Vegas, a result of his making too many waves with his blatant criminal activities. Undeterred, Nicky puts together a hard-core crew and gets very busy running a successful burglary operation, using a massive network of informants to finger the best victims. While he makes a mint and even expands into opening his own restaurants, Nicky protects himself by sending money home to his bosses and doing special jobs for them.
Ace gets bad news on the home front when he finds out that Lester is still leeching money off of Ginger. He tells Ginger and Lester in blunt terms that this arrangement must stop, and reinforces his message by ordering his men to savagely beat Lester. This wounds Ginger emotionally, who seeks consolation from Nicky in a fashion that bodes ill for the future, and begins a downward spiral of alcoholism and drugs. Furthermore, Ace's relations with the locals deteriorates when he fires Don Ward and refuses to rehire him in any capacity, much to the anger of his County Commissioner relation, Pat Webb (L.Q. Jones).
Matters get even worse when a heretofore silent partner of Phillip Green shows up and loudly demands her share of the Tangiers pie, going so far as to file a lawsuit. The mob bosses don't want her prying open the casino books for all to see, so Nicky eliminates the problem. In the aftermath, law enforcement starts to pay attention to not only Nicky, but the whole Tangiers operation. The politicians begin to make their enmity felt, as Commissioner Webb has Ace's long dormant gaming license application formally reviewed and then denied, forcing Ace out of any public role in gaming operations.
In the middle of this increasing turmoil, Ace and Nicky's friendship has begun to deteriorate, with Ace aggravated by the unwelcome publicity generated by Nicky's operations and Nicky infuriated by Ace's focus on protecting his casino at all costs. The bosses are not as happy with Nicky as well, with the amount of money headed east decreasing and the attention by police and FBI agents to the mob's Las Vegas activities increasing.
In the final third of the movie, all of the tensions and problems begin to reach a critical mass. Ace and Ginger are already in trouble when Ginger goes so far as to run off to Beverly Hills with Lester and her daughter. Ace is infuriated, and a reconciliation is over nearly as quickly as it started. For the sake of his daughter, Ace lets Ginger stay, but he knows they are no longer married in any true sense. Once again, Ginger seeks consolation from Nicky, but this time the line is crossed and they begin a torrid affair. With animosity and suspicion around every corner, even Nicky and Ginger eventually split in a torrent of abuse and insults.
Law enforcement has not been sleeping all this time, but patiently observing, documenting, tapping phones, placing bugs, and using all those tools available to them. Finally, they begin to take action, papering Las Vegas with search warrants and arrest warrants, slowly dismantling both the mob control of the Tangiers and Nicky's crew. Facing the prospect of long prison terms, the mob bosses panic, and begin to kill their own in a desperate attempt to prevent anyone from snitching. Tragedy comes to visit everyone, as Ginger hits the absolute rock bottom of her drug abuse, Nicky's aggravation of the bosses comes back to haunt him, and Ace is car bombed.
Despite all the furor, Las Vegas continues on, as corporations come in to displace the mob, destroying the remnants of the mob's casinos and constructing their own sanitized and family-friendly casinos in their place. Fade to black.
Casino is one of those movies that really takes advantage of the visual capabilities of the DVD format. Between the spectacular backdrop of the Las Vegas Strip, the massively decorated and colorful interiors of casinos and restaurants, and Ace's distinctive suits, this disc uses every little bit of color saturation that it can pack into the format. I can't think of another disc that I have seen that has so much going on visually, and to have the colors look this rich and vibrant. Blacks are deep and solid, and excellent contrast in the variety of indoor and outdoor shots, which cover about all of the lighting possibilities very well. If your TV isn't properly color-balanced, you will definitely notice with this disc. Only some minor video noise in a handful of scenes and minor softness detract from the quality.
The audio is a vital component in setting the tone and feel of the movie, and this 5.1 mix is up to the challenge. Dialogue is clear and distinct, and the music is pleasingly reproduced from low to high frequencies, using the LFE channel when necessary. I noticed a nice channel separation in the front soundstage, and the explosions and other sound effects are reinforced with a nice subwoofer thump.
Typical for a Scorsese film, he has managed to collect an outstanding cast of actors and get top-notch performances from all of them. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Sharon Stone each give us a fully detailed performance, showing us a unique set of motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and a distinct agenda. De Niro is the calm and dedicated gambler king, but we understand the blind spot that Ginger and his family occupy. Joe Pesci can shock us with horribly vicious violence, but jump to a little league game or a breakfast at home with his son and we are convinced that he's also a family man. Ginger is a single-minded hustler, but with her own fatal soft-spot. Each performance is complex and nuanced, but presented with style. The rest of the supporting cast gets the job done as well!
As my colleague noted in his recent review of Heat, movies that are this long have a difficult time in holding the attention of an audience. I have seen Casino quite a number of times on VHS and DVD, and each time I am sucked into the compelling and seductive world of mobster Las Vegas. There is just so much stunning scenery to show you and so much detail to talk about, from the immense machinery dedicated to separating you from your money, to the long arm of the Midwest mobsters, to the personal details of the central characters that you never have much time to sit and get bored. Just when you do start to get comfortable, you'll get woken up in a hurry, time and again.
Universal gives us their typical middle of the road treatment for a catalog title. There are pretty detailed production notes, cast and filmmakers' bios, and a good quality widescreen theatrical trailer (which is, however, only about 1.85:1. Boo hiss!). Menus are movie themed but static. A simple two page insert and the preferred Amaray keepcase round out the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With a director and a cast of this quality, the limited extras seem like a travesty. I recognize that there may not have been too much room left on the RSDL disc for many more extras, but it's still a pity. I would have loved to hear director and cast do a commentary track, or at least give us some thoughts in an interview featurette. Some information about the historical mob connections to Las Vegas would have been interesting, as would an interactive tour of the city (such as we saw in L.A. Confidential for L.A. or in You've Got Mail for New York).
With a cast this big and talented, it is almost inevitable that some of the characters will get only limited use. Don Rickles, Alan King, and Dick Smothers (as an oily Nevada State Senator) are all funny and talented actors, and I would have liked to see them get more use.
While the Universal grid for showing many of the disc's features is nice, it does not tell you anything about the extras, which is something that I always want to know when deciding whether to buy or rent a DVD. Also, for a movie that is this long, we really should get more than 16 chapter stops.
A masterpiece of mobster cinema, Scorsese's gift to us all looks great, sounds great, and gives us three hours of movie magic packaged into a solid DVD. It is a little pricey ($27), but if you don't buy this disc, Nicky Santoro may just pay you a visit!
With the apologies of the Court, the film and disc are most honorably acquitted. Universal is admonished to consider a Special Edition disc for this worthy defendant.
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