Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci
Tag line: "Winner loses all"
Trivia: Robert de Niro' had 70 different costumes throughout the film, Sharon Stone had 40. Both were allowed to keep their wardrobes afterwards
Director Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino plays like a classic tragedy, the story of three people who had the world at their fingertips, only to let it slip away.
Based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi about real-life gambler / casino man Frank Rosenthal, Casino stars Robert DeNiro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, whose skills as a handicapper so impressed mob boss Remo Gaggi (Pasquale Cajano) that he and the other heads of the Midwest syndicate hired Ace to run their newest asset, the Tangiers hotel / casino in Las Vegas. A man who lived and breathed gambling, it proved the perfect job for a guy like Ace, and with his childhood friend, gangster Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), watching his back, it seemed as if he could do no wrong. Then Ace met Ginger (Sharon Stone), a part time hooker and full-time hustler who immediately stole his heart. Around the same time Ginger arrived on the scene, Nicky laid the foundations for his own criminal empire in Vegas, leading to some turmoil that threatened to ruin his friendship with Ace. But it’s not until Ace convinces Ginger to marry him that things really start to go south.
“It should have been so sweet”, says Nicky as narrator (a role he shares with several others, including Ace) when speaking of Las Vegas. “But it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that f*ckin' valuable again”. Yes, it should have been sweet. Rothstein, as played by DeNiro, was a focused, often humorless professional, a gambler turned casino boss determined to do right by those who showed such confidence in him. And he, in turn, made sure that not a single detail slipped by him (when his blueberry muffin didn’t have enough blueberries, he took it to the Tangiers’ head chef, telling him to make sure every muffin had an equal amount from then on). Under Ace's watchful eye, the Tangiers made many people rich, including the big shots back home.
But while he was undoubtedly a great casino boss, Rothstein wasn’t all that good at turning a blind eye when he should have. When one of the casino’s featured slot machines was tampered with (it paid out 3 jackpots in less than 15 minutes), Ace fired his slots manager, Don Ward (John Bloom), for not realizing a fix was on. Don was, indeed, totally incompetent, but he was also the brother-in-law of country commissioner Pat Webb (L.Q. Jones). When Ace refuses Webb’s request to re-hire Don, the commissioner launches an investigation into Ace’s application for a gaming license. All at once, Ace finds himself in some hot water, and the bosses back home, who don't want to make any waves, start to wonder if it's time for him to step aside.
Of course, Ace's political wranglings weren't the only problem. Much like his Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, Pesci’s Nicky Santoro is a mobster with a short fuse, a thug who hits first and asks questions later. “No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on”, Ace says in voice-over. “You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he'll keep comin' back and back until one of you is dead”. Asked to go to Las Vegas to protect Ace, Nicky instead sees it as an opportunity to make a little money on the side. Once in town, he and his pal Frank Marino (Frank Vincent) muscle their way into the rackets, and recruit a team of talented thieves willing to steal anything they can get their hands on. For a while, things go well for Nicky. He moves his brother Dominic (Philip Suriano) out to help him run his legitimate businesses (a jewelry store and a classy restaurant), and sends a tribute back to Remo every month, to prevent the aging Don from looking too deeply into what he was doing.
But Nicky is reckless, and Ace knows that it’s only a matter of time until the law catches up with him. After he’s banned from the casinos, Ace, still trying to keep things on the up-and-up, has no choice but to turn his back on Nicky in public, a move that puts a strain on their friendship. Then, when Ace grows tired of hearing his name mentioned alongside Nicky’s on the evening news, he goes to the mob’s middle man, Andy Stone (Alan King), hoping he’ll convince the bosses to tell Nicky to lay low. This leads to an increased tension between the two, and soon enough, the old friends are at each others' throats.
Pesci and DeNIro are predictably excellent as the pals turned adversaries, but it’s Sharon Stone who delivers a career defining performance as Ginger, a woman who knows exactly what she wants out of life: money, and lots of it. When Ace first lays eyes on her, she’s a street-wise girl, paying off everyone from the pit bosses to the college kids who park your car, all to ensure she gets first crack at the high rollers, those guys she can take for a ride both in the bedroom and at the crap tables. In her own way, she’s become the Queen of Las Vegas, so when Ace proposes marriage, it’s Ginger who balks, saying she’s not the marrying kind, and adding that she cares for him, but doesn’t love him.
Initially, Ace says he’s OK with this, that love will eventually grow from a mutual respect for one another, but what he doesn’t know is that Ginger, as tough as she is, is still under the spell of her former pimp Lester (James Woods), a two-bit thief and drug dealer who uses his power over her to siphon some of Ace’s hard-earned cash. At several points throughout the movie, Ginger runs to Lester, forcing Ace (with the help of Nicky) to get involved. When Ace lays down the law, Ginger cries on Nicky's shoulder, causing even more friction between the former best pals.
Along with the sometimes complex story of its three lead characters, Casino, in amusing, occasionally graphic detail, also shows us how things used to be in Vegas when the mob was in control. With Scorsese employing his usual flair, Casino takes us inside the “Holy of Holies”, the Tangiers cash room, where we watch as the mob’s delivery man, John Nance (Bill Allison), packs hundreds of thousands of dollars into a brown leather bag, the “skim off the top” that goes directly to the Midwest bosses. We learn about the day-to-day operations, and how casinos went about ensuring that they never lost money; when Japanese millionaire Ichikawa (Nobu Matsushisa) takes the Tangiers for $2 million, Ace and his second-in-command, Billy Sherbert (comedian Don Rickles) arrange for Ichiklawa’s private plane to experience “technical problems”, a clever ploy to get him back to the Tangiers for another night. Sure enough, Ichikawa ends up losing the $2 million, plus drops a million of his own at the card tables (“The cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all”). Also, in what is my favorite sequence in the entire film, we see what happens to a couple of fools (Joseph Reidy and Joe La Due) who are caught cheating, a scene that’s shocking in its brutality, yet somehow entirely satisfying.
With Scorsese pulling out all the cinematic stops, and DeNiro, Pesci, and Stone at the top of their games, Casino offers yet another look into the inner workings of the mafia, and while it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of Goodfellas (arguably Scorsese’s masterpiece), Casino is nonetheless a history lesson, a searing drama, and an epic motion picture all rolled into one.