Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein
Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna
Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro
Frank Vincent as Frankie Marino
Pasquale Cajano as Remo Gaggi
James Woods as Lester Diamond
Las Vegas — the city everybody wants to pick for their next vacation but most who do wish they hadn’t. Believe it or not, it used to be an even bigger con-job, though some would argue that corporate America is so ruthless that the difference is exaggerated. I am, of course, referring to the days when organized crime essentially ran Vegas. If you wanted to buy a casino, you had to satisfy mob unions that they would get their kickbacks. You also probably needed someone who could keep you from getting shaken down by gangsters further down the tower.
Martin Scorsese, following his mob masterpiece Goodfellas, decided to make a movie based on Vegas under mafia control, based on the real people who presided over both the peak and destruction of this aspect of American history.
Sam “Ace” Rothstein is a gambler who doesn’t just analyze before making a bet. He gets the inside track. In other words, others dream about striking it rich by consistently picking winners, but Ace actually does it. Since bookies are known to weasel out of promised payoffs, Ace always tells the mobs who to bet on. Why? So they’ll have local thug Nicky Santoro follow Ace to make sure the bookies award as honestly as the take. So they’re given prominent roles in Vegas. Ace runs an innovative casino, while Nicky keeps it from getting hustled. All’s going well. That is until Nicky starts his own gang. Ace’s gold-digging wife, Ginger, starts fooling around with Nicky. Both turns of events start cluing the police into what’s going on.
On paper, the performances seem strong. They may be even better in practice. Especially Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci. Stone plays a gold-digger to perfection. She manages masterfully the balance between letting us know that her character doesn’t really love Ace and the need to still let us believe that Ace is fooled. Joe Pesci, meanwhile, is the perfect raging gangster (admittedly not an atypical character for him) as opposed to the restrained Godfather type. He sounds exactly like an angry psychopath would when he loses his temper; a gradual escalation of rage. It’s a well-known fact that the word “f*ck” is used a lot in the movie. An overwhelming portion of them are Pesci’s. Ironically enough, Frank Vincent, the actor who played one of the characters killed by Pesci’s character in Goodfellas is back as Pesci’s sidekick, Frankie.
Beyond performances, what’s great about this movie is how it shows the way Vegas operated back then. This is done through supporting characters. Two-bit real estate salesman Phil Green is the puppet owner of Ace’s casino, but he will prove smarter and less scrupulous than he looks. No honor among thieves, indeed. Remo Gaggi is your classically monotone boss. He complains about Nicky’s out-of-control nature causing him to do stupid things but to no avail. James Woods plays Lester Diamond, a failed card cheat who’s known Ginger a long time and has a hold on her. In fact, Ginger’s feelings for him seem more real than her feelings for Ace, which really makes the casino tycoon pissed. We even get a hypocritical rant from Ace about what a worthless scumbag Lester is while Ace works in league with the mob.
The one complaint I have is that character interactions could be better. This was Goodfellas’ advantage. It had many scenes that showed the relationships between its main characters outside of work very well. Casino doesn’t have that. For instance, we’re told that Ace and Nicky are best friends but see very little of them together in non-business dialogue. So I’d have to call Goodfellas the better movie.
But Casino is a great mob movie in its own right. Though not perfect, it is still one of the standard bearers of this genre.
Overall: 8 out of 10