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Casino: Anniversary Edition

Martin Scorsese's third film set in the world of organized crime, Casino (1995), received mostly muted praise following the avalanche of hyperventilated superlatives dropped on his previous gangster movie, Goodfellas (1990). While in many ways Casino matched its predecessor's marvelous aesthetic fluidity and kinetic, violent energy, it was perhaps too similar to the earlier film not to suffer a backlash from burned-out critics. Scorsese re-teamed, after all, with Goodfellas' co-writer Nick Pileggi for this true-crime tale, and he cast Goodfellas alumni Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, the latter in a role strikingly similar to his 1990 Oscar-winning Tommy DeVito. However, despite Casino's handicap of familiarity, its narrative is, in some ways, more satisfying. Based (with names changed) on the true story of the mob's final decade in control of Las Vegas in the 1970s, Casino stars De Niro as Sam 'Ace' Rothstein, a brilliant Jewish gambler hand-picked by a midwest crime family to operate the Tangiers casino. An acute player of angles, Ace sees this new role as the opportunity to ply his talents in the legitimate world of legal gambling and plays it as straight he can, given the massive cash-skimming operation going on behind the scenes to the benefit of his bosses. Rothstein's sharp instincts, low profile, and quest for integrity successfully keep the heat at bay, until his old Chicago pal (and made man) Nicky Santoro (Pesci) relocates to Vegas and instantly earns a reputation for his impetuous and violent criminal activities. Ace complicates an increasingly precarious situation when he falls for a greedy, hustling bombshell (Sharon Stone) and convinces her to marry him, despite her dedication to a low-life pimp and druggie (James Woods).

*          *          *

Part magazine-style docudrama, like Goodfellas, Casino depicts the fascinating and intricate operations of the Vegas mob during the 1970s, but more importantly it also follows the tragic aspirations of Rothstein, who yearns for respectability in circumstances that conspire against him in the most severe terms. Ace's narrative gives Casino an empathetic protagonist, anchoring the movie in way that Goodfellas' sociopathic Henry Hill could not muster. In many ways, De Niro's character is similar in substance to Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta, and his performance is equally affecting, if opposite in style. Unfortunately, Casino undermines this promise with a few inevitable drawbacks. While the opening 25-minute introductory sequence is as technically dazzling as anything in Goodfellas, the very necessary non-stop expositional narration is unwieldy and demanding and works against Scorsese's keen visual momentum. Casino also bogs down much later when it dwells too long on the realistic but redundant domestic strife in the Rothstein household. Even though Stone gives by far her best performance as the increasingly booze-and-drug-addled Ginger, the character's key role in the destruction of the mob's gambling empire does not escalate quickly enough and grows tiresome. Pesci is terrific, again, as a hothead gangster with more brawn than brains who explodes in an instant from comical wise guy into murderous thug, and the cast is stuffed with appealing character actors likes Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollack, Dick Smothers, John (Joe Bob Briggs) Bloom, and Frank Vincent. Ultimately, however, Casino lacks the particular, distinguishing flavor of Goodfellas, and its series of indelible set pieces, in spite of its being a better overall drama. Universal replaces their first-generation 1998 DVD release of Casino with this nice new "Anniversary Edition" (in June 2005) presented in a great-looking anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The feature is accompanied by a "Moments With…" commentary-like audio track that pieces together insights and reflections from Scorsese, Pileggi, Stone, producer Barbara DeFina, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. A lot of these soundbites can be found in the 55 minutes of interviews on the disc's flip side, the low point of which are Stone's enthusiastic explanations of her craft. Much more interesting is the History Channel program "History Alive: True Crime Authors: Casino with Nicholas Pileggi," which details the movie's factual bases (44 min.). There also is a short "Vegas and the Mob" featurette and three minutes of unremarkable deleted scenes. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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