In the hands of almost any other filmmaker, Casino would be a considered a watermark in that person’s career. Critics and film nuts (such as the very fine folks here at Filmotomy) would still be talking about the fantastic performances of Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci, two wiseguys hired by the midwest mafia to run the Tangier hotel in Sin City and and a scene-stealing Sharon Stone as the woman who brought it all down. We would be praising how he or she captured Las Vegas – the allure, the glamour, the thrill of betting and winning big, the ins-and-outs of a living money machine; only to rip it all down and show us what’s really there. We would be praising the spot on choices in 60-70’s pop/rock music, from the use of the Rolling Stone’s “Gimmie Shelter” to Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange”; to the screenplay and direction which spend its time setting up this world, always having you engaged with this group of sorrid, broken and sometimes despicable characters. And almost certainly, Casino would be mentioned alongside Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Michael Mann’s Heat, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential and Marty Scorsese’s Goodfellas as one of the best crime dramas of the 90’s.
And there, as the Bard would say, lies the rub: this was made by Scorsese, five years after the film world stood in awe and admiration for Goodfellas, crafting a picture that many film critics believe stands toe to toe with Raging Bull as his finest work in his illustrious career. While the response was still positive, the consensus was that Scorsese was falling back on old tricks; more specifically – he was trying to duplicate what worked perfectly in Goodfellas and transfer that into a tale of crime, excess and consequence in a Vegas setting. How much truth is there in said consensus? I’ve watched Scorsese’s crime film twice (not an easy feat, given it’s three hours long), and while there is some familiarity in its structure, I don’t believe it is the carbon-copy of Scorsese’s previous effort that it was labeled as.
Much like in Goodfellas, the bones of this film share familiar beats. For example, we have the main character narrating his time in this world, Sam Rothstein (De Niro), a professional handicapper who is the best at predicting and calculating the odds. He is our eyes into the day-to-day operations of running the Tangier, from making an example of low-level scammers by way of breaking hands and forcefully kicking out rude patrons, to keeping the high rollers and Nevada’s political bigwigs satisfied and blowing their money on gambling. Also, similar to Henry Hill, Rothstein loves his position because he’s a legitimate businessman in this world, rather than some two-bit hustler looking for the next score. To quote Hill, “To live any other way was nuts.” We also have, in the spirit of Scorsese’s predecessor, a loose cannon in the form of mob enforcer Nicky Santoro, Sam’s best mate, and sent by Mafia boss, Remo Gaggi, to protect their most valuable asset as they scam the Tangier. He’s played by Joe Pesci, and he’s essentially reprising his role as Tommy DeVito: he’s volatile and his short-tempered nature endangers the whole criminal enterprise, all while getting a thrill off of robbing people outside of Las Vegas when he’s blacklisted.
Perhaps the most similar aspect of both films has to be the second half, where the director takes the criminal underworld and slowly destroys it, undoing all the best laid plans both professionally, and personally, the main characters have carefully created. Both Sam and Henry see their marital life collapse in betrayal and heartbreak, while their enterprises are uncovered by the FBI, and are forced into a no-win scenario: give up information that will lead to the fall of the Mob and face jail, or keep quiet and get whacked.
Now, despite these familiar themes regarding crime and consequence, Casino is not a carbon-copy of what Scorsese did with Goodfellas. In fact, there are a few elements that distinctly separate one film from the other. The first being empathy for it’s main character. The point of Goodfellas wasn’t to romanticize the gangster lifestyle, but to condemn men like Henry Hill, James “Jimmy the Gent” Conway, Tommy DeVito and Paul Cicero, and label them as the scumbags that they are. And while Scorsese didn’t shed any sympathy for Pesci’s Nicky when he sees his own brutal end, Marty shows a significant amount of empathy toward Rothstein. Yes, he was a part of the Mafia, but you could see his passion for his craft. You could tell he loved being in charge of the Tangier: running the floor, keeping guests entertained and throwing away their money, making sure that there was an equal amount of blueberries placed in a muffin, and you can see how much it killed him when the Nevada state legislature screwed him out of gaining his gaming license to continue running the place, and when he was resorted to doing tricks on TV in order to stay on the hotel floor. In short: running the casino was his identity.
Perhaps the most significant difference between both films has to be Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna, a former prostitute-turned Vegas hustler. In many ways, she’s the heart and soul of why this picture isn’t just the same old song and dance from what we’ve seen from Scorsese: her character starts out as this bold, brash, yet confident hustler who knew how to work the room; and how to take care of everyone, right down to the chauffeurs. Ginger is Rothstein’s equal, someone who knows how to play the angles and see through the odds, and the reason why he ends up falling for her. Yet, despite her outward appearance of control, she has two flaws – her former pimp boyfriend Lester Diamond (James Woods) whom she inexplicably continues to help fund and run back to thought the film, and her dependence on drugs & alcohol as she fails to cope with marital life. The tragedy of Ginger brings the bitter irony of Rothstein’s character in focus: here is a man who sees everything in his casino, and exploits every advantage to his gain, yet he, of all people, couldn’t see that Ginger was playing him, nor that his friend Nicky would eventually get too big for his own good and was too explosive to be his muscle. In the end, much like one’s luck in Sin City, the odds went against him, and the house won out.
Yes, Martin Scorsese’s Casino shares familiar beats with Goodfellas, but to say it’s the a photo-copy of his previous effort isn’t particularly fair: the character arcs, especially between De Niro and Stone’s characters are flat out compelling and filled with tragic irony, and Scorsese shows a surprising amount of empathy toward its main character, “Ace” Rothestein, despite him being a Mafia associate and without fully feeling sorry for him, or the world he was involved in. It’s a difficult balance, not to mention, a difficult hand that perhaps even the most talented filmmakers would end up folding. Yet Scorsese, once again comes up aces and shows us a winning hand.