By Marc S. Sanders
When a movie is set in Las Vegas, doesn’t it feel like it should be overly exaggerated, maybe a little loud, and quite bombastic? That’s how I feel about Martin Scorsese’s three-hour opus, Casino. The film opens with a car bomb exploding our primary narrator, Sam “Ace” Rothstein into the skies where he then makes his descent into the expansive signs that light up sin city in the desert.
Ace (Robert DeNiro) runs The Tangiers Casino. He was especially picked by the mid-west Mafia back home (St. Louis, Mo.) to oversee everything that happens at the casino. He’s looking for cheaters. He’s making sure blueberry muffins live up to their name. He’s dodging the FBI and their hidden bugs. Most importantly, he’s making sure hefty suitcases are walked out of the casino and delivered on a monthly basis to the wise guys he has to answer to, and those deliveries better not come up light. These guys treasure Ace because he never loses a bet. Not one. He can predict the outcome of any sports contest. He can beat the odds on any table. Ace is the best at his job because he also works eighteen hours out of every day, and he makes a lot of money for his superiors.
Everything should go smoothly. However, the mob has also allowed Ace’s childhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to move out to Vegas. Nicky is a heavy. It’s not wise to upset or anger Nicky, because it’ll likely be the last time you ever do. He’ll kick you when you’re down on the ground, but he’ll also stab you with a pen an endless number of times. Don’t get your head caught in a vice when you are around Nicky. This bull might have been sent out as a toughie to protect Ace and his work, but he’s not subtle about his methods. When law enforcement gets involved, it only causes interference for Nicky and his crew to get back in the casinos or even in to Vegas. Because Nicky won’t settle for that, it’s only going to make things harder, and especially challenging for Ace.
Ace’s other problem focuses on the one bet he did lose in life, and that was marrying Ginger (Sharon Stone in an Oscar nominated performance). She’s a high-class hooker that Ace quickly becomes infatuated with, and the worst mistake he could have ever made was that he trusted her. He trusted Ginger way too much. Ginger may have quickly had a child and married Ace, but she never gave up on her loyalty to her scuzzy pimp, Lester (James Woods), and just wait until she starts carelessly confiding in Nicky. Early on, everyone in the room, like even those in the comfort of their own homes, scream out loud why Ace would entrust a safe deposit box containing millions in cash with only Ginger’s name. Ace can’t even get into the box if he wanted to. He arranged it so that only Ginger could have access. Keep the cash out of his name and the Feds can’t make a case. As well, is Ace hiding his own interests from his own people? Yet, that’s what he did. He trusted his hooker wife way too much, way too often.
I’ve seen Casino a few times and I always leave it with the exact same problem. I don’t think the film lives up to its title enough. The first half of the film, while a similar blueprint to Goodfellas and later The Wolf Of Wall Street, is incredibly sweeping with Scorsese’s signature steady cams and voiceover work from DeNiro and Pesci. You can travel from one end of the gambling hall, and then through clandestine back rooms and into secure areas all within sixty seconds. Scorsese with a script from Nicholas Pileggi gives you a very fast education on how Ace operates a tight ship and keeps his mob superiors invested.
Later, however, the film loses its way with an abundance of material on the Ginger character and how she is undoing Ace. Stone gives an incredible performance as a constant drug and alcohol fueled spoiled brat of a trophy wife/former hooker. She has wild outbursts that continuously threaten Ace and who he works for and with. Minutes later, the film cuts to where the drugs have worn off and she comes back to her husband with her chinchilla coat draped over her shoulders. The energy that Stone puts into this role must have exhausted her. As a viewer, I get wiped out just watching her. Yet, as engrossed the actress is in the part, what does it really have to do with life in a mob run casino?
It’s not crazy to say that Las Vegas is city of at least 8 million stories. It’s not called sin city for nothing. In three hours’ time, much attention is given to how Ace’s casino funnels out monies to the mob. Focus is also given to how they deceive the gaming commission and how Ace dodges the need to have a gaming license if he is to work at the casino. There’s a great scene where he demonstrates what happens to cheaters who rip off the joint. He also has to contend with the governing good ol’ boys who staked their claim in Nevada long before it became the gaming capital of the world. If a dumb nephew is fired for not properly handling the slot machines, Ace is going to have to answer to someone with a big shot title. Pileggi’s script is best in scenarios like this. So, I can’t understand why he diverts his story into a domestic squabble of screaming and shoving between a husband and wife.
The Ace/Ginger storyline populates over one third of the movie and then not much is talked about with the casino. There are broken glasses and screaming and crying and drug fueled rages and opportunities to beat up Lester and now the film has become a personal picture, rather than Las Vegas mob cycle we were invited to observe.
Ironically, what I always hoped to gain from Casino is only a tease at the end, when Ace narrates how Las Vegas segued from mob rule and sold out to corporate America, even comparing it to Disney Land. A wise shot is provided showing the senior citizens entering the doors of the casinos en masse, dressed in their sweat pants and polyester outfits ready to take a chance on the slots, not the more sophisticated gaming tables where the fat cats would lay down ten grand a hand. Why couldn’t Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese devote time to this transition? This seems like the bigger bet that Ace wouldn’t win out on. Tons of married couples lose out and get married for the wrong reasons. We’ve seen that kind of material before. The real undoing of Ace Rothstein was likely the blue-chip organizations who pounced on what the mafia pioneered. Hardly any of that is shown, only left to be implied. I’m sorry, but Casino concludes on a missed opportunity.