Casino (1995): Better than Goodfellas?

I cannot articulate if Goodfellas is better than Casino, nor justify that it should be, simply because it is more enjoyable—not succinctly, at least. It probably isn’t. Casino hit plenty more of its dramatic beats, with its lows lower, and its falls harder, more pronounced, fatal and tragic. If the earlier film’s cast withered away quietly behind bars, or swiftly thanks to a bullet to the head, Casino‘s aftermath was a more immediate demise with Ginger and Nicky Santoro perishing on the screen and center-frame. And whereas Henry Hill and co. pushed their luck at numerous junctures, their Casino counterparts were repeatedly given an out on a silver platter. Sam’s license is rejected; Ginger marries into money and out of convenience; and Nicky is blacklisted from the city’s casinos. Yet time and again, they re-up and buy in.

The Strip is a rare sighting of a Las Vegas landmark in Casino

This time around, Marty strode in foreign territory compared to the genre’s conventional habitat and, indeed his own; Casino‘s grander scale is now befitting of an epic’s runtime if not an anointment as one. And yet, Casino is not a Vegas movie—it is a mob movie with with a concentration in gaming. It majors in hotel management and minors in gambling. A lot of time is spent indoors with sparse mention of the Tangiers, its competition or other Vegas landmarks. Even its reputation as a boxing Mecca gets no cursory tribute despite the real-life Sam “Ace” Rothstein introducing sports betting to the city’s gaming portfolio. The whores and comp’d rooms do make an appearance, and that entertainment side, Sodom’s hospitable veneer, is briefly alluded to, with De Niro’s cold, uptight role as Mob-appointed casino executive (slotting in nicely as a hotel manager in some parallel universe) a high water mark for the screen vet impersonating an impersonator.

Absent from my initial observations is that, at heart, Casino is a tragedy, and one, ironically, self-inflicted to a degree. Ace Rothstein has never lost a bet once he found a winning formula… Until he left it all to chance and for a street walker, no less. A roving hustler and a junkie unfit to house under a roof let alone a quick shag to have under which. Rendered in a full evolutionary treatment reserved for metamorphoses—from a rising gaming maverick, to overpowered husband, to redeemed bookie, and, in between, an embattled casino manager—it is also the story of a city and its false promise of boundless fortune sold as dreams. And to each, a version of their own choosing, crafted and tailored to their liking. Ginger, an admitted gold digger, siphons pocket change from Ace and calls it a day. Too much of a yokel to devise a more elaborate take than picking pockets, she remains a lowly sycophant—an unevolved leech. Nicky, tasked with protecting Ace, and the operation, gets to live out a dormant wild west fantasy he never knew he had. And for Ace, paradise meant the woman of his dreams was on his arm as his best friend watched his back. Except he plays a long game undermined by a backroom staff pulling in different directions.

It is not at all a stretch to see, in this film, a poker game with a bad beat causing the three principals to undergo varying degrees of tilt following a hot run. The overarching theme of gambling away a different currency, one’s reservoir of karma (Nicky), dignity (Ginger) or sanity (Ace), is more compelling than the mere financial ruin for a Joe Blow, or a fate between death and incarceration in the mob story, and with the backdrop of glitz and glam and greed, the clash of three interpretations of what the city means takes on a whole new dimension for the genre. What is on the surface a simple story of lust and betrayal is dressed up as a crime saga and this is said with the utmost praise.

I have long suspected that, beyond doubt, De Niro enjoyed the more accomplished career to anyone’s claim for Pacino, and in Casino, under Marty’s bespectacled watch, he earns the regular season MVP before his postseason run with Heat in late 1995. What De Niro does in composed and measured silences here, Pacino answers with a parody of himself, it felt. But with Sharon Stone, Scorsese effectively upgrades his wide receiver slot, takes the ball out of Liotta’s legs and gives more snaps to De Niro. All the while, Pesci does all the dirty work, picking up blocks, but in Stone, De Niro’s Brady gets his Moss at last—there’s no more of Vinatieri’s shit this time. So unhinged and psychotically impulsive was Stone as Ginger, I wished a second was spent to reveal how her baggage was daddy issues and that Lester Diamond surely picked her up while underage, though judging by Stone’s bat-shit performance, kudos for getting that close.

The Disneyfication of Las Vegas is a late, perfunctory footnote, a natural outcome given that it is the tail-end of the mob’s reign in the city and the film’s narrative conclusion. It is to Rothstein’s express lament, less so for Nicky, that that becomes the waning moment of frontier America in the city and its wild west ways. Sam lands in the city with much at stake, and can’t practice his newfound calling elsewhere, at least not without some scrutiny. Over here he is legit. In The Godfather II, the Corleones got a taste of the tribal bureaucracy that proved a hidden barrier to entry for the final phases of their legitimization. Casino presents a similar obstacle of local hicks threatening to derail Sam’s plans, all side gigs unsanctioned by Missouri. Funnily enough, the same corrupt politician archetype with a penchant for ass proves too powerful to blackmail in Casino whereas the same tactic foils an opposite number in The Godfather II. Meanwhile, as both Ginger and Nicky get to moonlight as well, the latter’s methods are emboldened precisely by the locale; out here, no one can see what he gets up from Missouri. Ginger is guilty of going behind her husband’s back which is the overall message of pushing one’s luck and operating out of sight of the parties they entered into some form of contract with. Fools rush in, and Vegas claims a new sucker every day, including the one man impervious to chance. This is all laid bare in the opening lines of the film: without trust, you have nothing. The irony of that truism is you can’t bet on damaged goods and gimped players, and just like in Heat, a De Niro character finds itself breaking its own code.

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