This masterpiece from Martin Scorsese opens with the mob pushing into the casinos in the 1970s and the action centres around the fictional Tangiers Casino run by highly successful professional gambler Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and his psychopathic childhood buddy and enforcer Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci).
Smart as Ace is, he falls for the alluring but trashy hooker, Ginger (Sharon Stone), who insists on keeping alive a longtime relationship with her seedy pimp, Lester (James Woods) after she marries the smitten casino operator.
What makes Ace tick is the need to shave every edge of advantage as he fronts day and night for his bosses, who built the Tangiers with money stolen from the Teamsters’ pension fund.
Ginger drinks, snorts lines of coke and starts going downhill in Sharon Stone’s bravest performance to date. Never has she allowed herself to appear so hard, so brittle, so overextended, so blatantly mercenary – and so touching in her inability to avoid self-destructiveness.
Strip away the colour and the flash from Casino – it’s loaded to the brim with both – and we’re left with a picture of the high cost of doing the wrong thing. And even as Pesci’s loose-cannon enforcer entertains us with his outrageousness, he also frightens us with his essential stupidity and lack of imagination, which leaves him without any ability to connect deeds with consequences.
What makes his Nicky Santoro so arresting is that he doesn’t look like a killer, with his stubby build and rubbery face. He doesn’t sound like one, with his squeaky, piping voice. But when he turns on a guy in a bar and starts stabbing the guy in the throat with his own pen, we’re not surprised.
And from there, how much of a leap is it to slaughtering competitors, beating them bloody with baseball bats, or shooting them and burying them in the conveniently located desert?
The subsidiary message, intoned by Ace in one of the voice-overs that drive the film, is that Las Vegas exists for one purpose only – to separate people from their money. Nobody knows this better than Ace (based on the real-life Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal).
Casino is three hours’ long, but it’s never boring. The film isn’t perfect, but it’s inspired. It’s a nuclear reactor of a movie about the absence of love – and the pervasiveness of several kinds of death that are now being dished out in the sand by the corporate entities that have succeeded the mob in Vegas.
Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein
Robert De Niro
Vincent Vella Jr
Larry E. Nadler
Detective Bob Johnson
Daniel P. Conte