The Mafia is the most interesting crime organisation out there, and Martin Scorsese understands this as well as the Mafia itself all too well. He knows that the inner workings of the Italian crime family is fascinating to those who avidly pursue the knowledge of what goes on under the surface and even more so to those who blissfully ignore its ethereal presence. It is completely inappropriate that I am reminded of the vampire council in “Blade”, but regardless, I am. An organisation that is everywhere but never seen, and have their blood soaked tendrils in everything. The vampire council requires money to get blood, but the Mafia require blood to get money.
From the outset, “Casino” makes its presence known. Robert De Niro’s character Sam “Ace” Rosthstein walks out of a Casino in a bright pink suit and sits in his rigged car, which instantly erupts in hell-fire. The unrequited shock of this moment is what drives the narrative of “Casino”, whenever anything in the future happens or you get the sense that there is little direction to the plot, you remember where it will end up, and it contextualises the situations and keeps it all very engaging. the opening also explains why so much of the story is told through voice over narration, especially in the first hour.
Sam Rosthstein narrates to us his past experiences leading up to the grave moment, starting in the 1980s when the mob ran Las Vegas. The narration is also handled by Joe Pesci’s character Nicky Santoro (who we’ll speak more about later) who does a fine fine job. The first hour I mentioned is told almost entirely through visual storytelling and voice over narration, the movie lives and dies on two things: The characters and the intricacies of the Mob. So we have a third of the movie dedicated to filling in those blanks. It’s surprising that the film is able to carry itself for so long without much plot progression, and I attribute this to both to the image in our head of the car bomb, and the fact that what we are being told is artfully written and effortlessly interesting.
We are introduced in this hour to Ace’s character, a high stakes gambler. He knows everything about gambling we are told about how he would find out the little details no one else cared about, such as wind velocity and how the flooring of a game will effect the bounce of the ball. Most crucially we are told that Ace always wins.
His efficiency with money and the gaming industry attracts the attention of the mob, who see fit to hire him as the de-facto boss of the Tangiers Casino which would be possible with he exploitation of a loophole that means Ace will never need to actually have a licence, he need merely apply for one. He accepts on the condition that things are done his way.
Sam’s way, of course, makes money. which needs to be “skimmed off the top” and given to the bosses once every month, as long as this happens then everything will be right as rain for Sam. Which is how it goes, but the brilliant success of the Tangiers leads the bosses to hire some enforcers as protection, the leader of which is Nicky Santoro. Nicky is an issue right off the bat, juxtaposing entirely with the methodical and rational business strategies of Ace, Santoro is violent even when only slightly provoked and he will not stop hitting. In Ace’s own words “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.”
The third major player is Ginger (Sharon Stone). An ex-prostitute that values money over anything else in the world, she can only be satisfied when someone sticks Benjamin Franklin’s portrait in her palm, and her pockets, and her shoes. Ace falls in love instantly with this girl, and quickly he asks for her hand in marriage. He is only able to sway her by offering substantial sums of money to support her, she quickly obliges and they have a child together.
These are the three pillars of the film, and each one is instrumental in each other’s future. Nicky attracts too much heat to Ace’s near perfect operation whilst Ginger descends into serious alcohol and drug problems, as well as refusing to stop seeing her old pimp Lester (James Woods). Ace’s unrequited love for Ginger keeps them together, but the relationship quickly becomes strained and Ginger becomes a detestable character, a character that Sharon Stone is able to portray with hateful relish.
“Casino” is gritty but it isn’t gratuitous. There are many scenes that will cause squirming outside the screen, but that’s the effect that is intended. Not for shock factor, but as an instinctive gut reaction that tells you that what is happening is wrong. It keeps the viewer from being overtly lured into the prospect of working in this bloodthirsty business, despite the money and respect, bones must be broken.
One scene in particular involving a vice is certainly going to put people off, but the effect won’t be lost by looking away, in fact that would indicate that Scorsese is doing his job more than right. Even if you choose to look — which I did — Scorsese should be credited for his restraint when filming these scenes. Gory images are only left on the screen for a second at most, with most of the effect being attributed to what we hear and our imaginations.
The story that follows of the FBI getting closer and closer to the operation as well as the relationship between Ginger and Ace is what makes the final 2 hours of this film compelling. We are always reminded through our own tuition of the ball of flame from the films introduction, and this still gives all of the events an objective that gives the movie constant purpose. It is less about the inevitable result, but more the engrossing journey.
Perhaps the three hour run time will be a bit much to some, but I find it marvelous that Martin Scorsese was able to create a film injected with such fantastic visual style that runs mostly off of its actors, whilst retaining a constant sense of investment. Looking between the titans of De Niro and Pesci, I was happily stuck in the middle.