In the opening moments of Casino, Sam ”Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), the Las Vegas hotshot, strolls through a parking lot wearing a sport coat the color of raspberry sherbet. He sits down inside his silver Eldorado, turns the ignition key, and blam! — the vehicle explodes. That’s a hell of a way to open a three-hour movie: by telling your audience, in effect, that the hero is already a goner. When Billy Wilder pulled a similar stunt in Sunset Boulevard, it was a ghoulish joke. This, however, is Martin Scorsese’s blood-and-glitz underworld epic, a movie in which he tries to up the ante on his last organized-crime picture, GoodFellas. It’s clear that he isn’t fooling around.
As Casino goes on, we see Ace in better days, as he arrives in Vegas in the early ’70s to rule the roost at the Tangiers, a posh casino-hotel owned by the Mob. Ace, who hails from back East, is a legendary gambler, a genius at working the angles. Technically, he isn’t part of the Mafia, but he has been placed in power by an elite group of Italian-American bosses who trust the numbers guy — the Jew — to up their profits. Once established, Ace prowls the huge, flashing game room of the Tangiers with the wary omnipotence of a jungle cat, observing the action — observing his life — but seldom getting involved. We see him master the tricks of the trade: how to skim receipts, spot cardsharps, and grease the palms (and more than that) of politicians. We see him fall for the boozy, gold-digging hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), whose declaration that she isn’t in love with him doesn’t deter Ace from marrying her. And we see him trapped in a lethal dance of wills with longtime pal Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci, doing high-pitched riffs on his GoodFellas persona), a brutal little thug who comes to Vegas for the action and proceeds to terrorize everyone in sight. Ace, however, remains what he always was: a control freak, a dourly ”civilized” efficiency expert. He’s the heart of Casino, but on some level he’s dead before anyone tries to blow him up.
Las Vegas casinos, at least in the ’70s, practiced a legalized version of what the Mob was already doing, and Casino, with its hypnotic flow of images and information, its vision of Vegas as a laboratory of domesticated sin, is a heady, engrossing experience — for a while. Scorsese, re-teaming with his GoodFellas collaborator Nicholas Pileggi, wants to get as far away as possible from conventional melodrama. Ace and Nicky are based on the actual underworld figures Frank ”Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony ”the Ant” Spilotro, and throughout the film the two characters narrate the action in relentless, voluble voice-over, explaining how they got there, what they’re doing, and why. To a degree, the strategy works; it creates an almost surgical slice of backroom intrigue. Yet the discursive, this-happened-and-this-happened-and-then-this approach that Scorsese employs has a serious drawback. In Casino, he doesn’t just revel in detail; he gets addicted to it. He bombards us with so much ”objective” information about his characters that he never quite finds their souls.
For a movie that wants to anatomize the inner workings of Vegas, Casino devotes precious little time to the gamblers themselves. Except for one terrifying scene of violence (Ace and his cohort punish two hustlers they’ve caught cheating at cards), there’s barely a glimpse of what life looks like on the sap side of the blackjack table. Scorsese doesn’t seem much interested in Vegas sleaze, either. Watching Casino, you’d never even guess that anyone went there to get laid.
So what does interest Scorsese? Money — or, more accurately, the intersection of money and violence. In essence, the Tangiers is strong-arming middle Americans, using the seductions of gambling to muscle people out of their cash. And since the sums involved run into the hundreds of millions, anyone who stands in the way of the flow risks the wrath of hell. Yet the film is so abstractly fixated on the cut-throat calculus of Vegas that it’s as chilly and joyless as the world it’s portraying. This is the first time I’ve watched people get ”whacked” in a Scorsese film and felt that he was getting off on it, reveling in the icy aggressiveness of violence as will. How could he not be? It’s the only true emotion in the movie.
The character of Ace should be our path into the Vegas demimonde. The way De Niro plays him, though, he’s a scowling cipher, a forbidding synthesis of dictator and monk. Everything in the Tangiers is geared toward profit, and Ace is the profit maximizer extraordinaire. But what, exactly, does he get out of it? For all the pleasure he displays, he might as well be running a bank. As Ace’s marriage devolves from cold to frigid, sending Ginger back to her old pimp boyfriend (James Woods) and, finally, into the arms of Nicky, Scorsese creates a no-exit trajectory that wears the viewer out. Stone, I have to say, does wonders with her thinly conceived role; her rage and desperation are palpable. She seems to be trying to enter a more passionate movie, where a neurotic gold digger could at least have a good time. By the end of Casino, for all its craftsmanly bravura, you may want to join her. B-