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"Washington is like Hollywood, but with uglier faces."
Facts of the Case
Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) is one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists. He's always been the guy who gets things done, but lately his methods have become increasingly suspect. With the enthusiastic support of his associate Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan), Abramoff conducts a series of deals far too complex to detail here. Long story short: Abramoff cuts corners, bypasses regulations and ends up with a whole bunch of money. Alas, he makes a fatal mistake in choosing to work with the shifty-yet-incompetent Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz, Rat Race). Soon, Abramoff's entire world comes crashing down around him.
Based on what I've read about the sordid saga of Jack Abramoff, I would have expected a biopic about the man to be nothing short of a furious condemnation. Casino Jack is precisely that, but it's not angry at Abramoff: it's angry at the hypocritical political system which breeds guys like Jack. As far as the movie's concerned, Jack is the symptom rather than the disease—and for that matter, he's got a lot more integrity than many of the self-righteous tools who chose to bite the hand that fed them. This case is made with persuasive conviction, and the film is at its best when it manages to put the microscope on the source of its outrage.
However, much of the time Casino Jack is content to be a politically-fueled lark; a "message movie" with generous sprinklings of violence, salty language, loud performances and a bouncy musical score (complete with doo-wop choir). It's the antithesis of films like Fair Game, trading in muted realism for a sense of tabloid sensationalism. This is a piece of politically-driven entertainment in the vein of Oliver Stone's W. and the soapy miniseries The Kennedys (also starring Barry Pepper, oddly enough); a film which often requires the facts to take a backseat to entertainment.
Casino Jack is a moderately entertaining affair, but it's superficially showoff-y in a manner befitting its movie-quoting protagonist (Spacey pulls out at least a dozen impressions over the course of this thing, and Barry Pepper throws in a few for good measure). In a number of external ways (including the performances), the film often adopts the feel of a lightweight crime comedy (I'm thinking Mad Money or Analyze This). While the approach is effectively offbeat at times (there's something kind of strangely fun about seeing real-life figures such as Tom DeLay depicted with such broad comic strokes), there are moments when you wish the film would get back to business and stop attempting to remind us of how wacky this whole situation is.
The film's best sequence comes near the conclusion; an elaborate moment of fantasy in which Abramoff delivers devastating condemnations of every one of his accusers, naming specific instances in which all of them (John McCain in particular) have demonstrated themselves to be just as guilty. It's a tremendously effective scene which leaves a positive aftertaste despite the film's issues.
In all likelihood, your tolerance for/enjoyment of Kevin Spacey is going to be a large determining factor in whether or not you enjoy the film. The film is perhaps above all else a showcase for the actor, who has disappointed in one underwhelming film after another for the past decade or so. Casino Jack offers the actor an opportunity to return to the savage, smartass, scenery-chewing waters of Swimming with Sharks and The Big Kahuna. I know some find Spacey a gratingly smug, self-satisfied actor, but that persona serves a guy like Abramoff very well. The actor is given plenty of opportunities to showcase his distinctive brand of smarmy rage and allows Abramoff to ride a fine line between savvy and delusional. If there's a problem, it's that we tend to notice Spacey more than the character he's playing (as is so often the case in the actor's performances). You can see Spacey acting, but the same could be said of Abramoff.
Barry Pepper offers a superb turn as Scanlon, giving Abramoff's most-trusted friend an enthusiastically shallow lust for life. You get a sense that this guy is comparing business cards with Patrick Bateman in his spare time. I have somewhat conflicted feelings about the performance of Jon Lovitz as Kidan, simply because the performance may actually be too funny for the movie. The performance is hilarious as its own self-contained thing, but it's on an entirely different level of goofy slapstick despite the fact that the film is more or less a comedy. But hey, that's not Lovitz's fault; he entertains every time he appears. Kelly Preston is onhand as Abramoff's wife, but she's given little to do in this Bad Boy Club of a movie.
Casino Jack rolls onto Blu-ray sporting a very respectable 1080p/2.35:1 transfer, and the movie's impressive digital photography offers pristine detail throughout. You can see every strand of hair, every line in Spacey's face and every bit of insignificant background detail. The film is dominated by bright daytime scenes (the 9-5 shift is Abramoff's primary territory) and manages a handful of interesting angles that prevent it from looking completely generic. Flesh tones are warm and accurate, while blacks are rich and inky. Audio is surprisingly robust and richly-mixed for a film like this, though there are a few moments in which the score threatens to drown out the dialogue (at the very least, the actors are competing with it). Extras are thin: a gag reel, some deleted scenes and a photo gallery.
Note: Director George Hickenlooper passed away shortly after completing the film, which may be a factor in the very minimal supplements offered on the disc. Casino Jack is one of his better films, but his two finest works were arguably Hearts of Darkness and The Man From Elysian Fields.
"You're nobody until you don't know Jack Abramoff," people in Casino Jack are occasionally heard to say. Everybody wants a piece of what guys like Abramoff have to offer, as long as the specifics remain behind closed doors. In its own oddly silly but nonetheless effective manner, the film reminds us that Jack Abramoff is only a bad guy because he got caught. It's not as blisteringly good as it could have been, but Casino Jack is a frisky entertainment that manages to land a few strong punches.
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Scales of Justice
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