“‘Casino’? Ca-seen it. The first time, when it was called ‘Goodfellas.’” - David Spade (SNL 1995)
Not long ago I came across Martin Scorsese’s CASINO on the Sundance Channel and found myself re-watching it. It has the distinction of being the only Scorsese movie that I don’t own a copy of. I’ve blown it off over the years for being too much of a retread of GOODFELLAS, but it’s been a bit since I’ve seen it so why not reconsider it?
To be fair, I have heard that there are people that prefer CASINO, because they like gambling and are fans of casino culture. It does seem like an ideal movie to put on if you’re playing the occasional slots game on an online casino at home come to think of it.
Still, right off the bat, the comparisons to GOODFELLAS can’t help but being made. With its cool-as-ice voice-overs, stylish editing, flashy cinematography with sweeping pans, and its dead-on depictions of the highs of a life of crime, we’re definitely in the same world that Scorsese and screenwriter/true crime novelist Nicholas Pileggi put on such vivid display in their 1990 masterpiece GOODFELLAS.
It’s the closest Scorsese has come to making a sequel, and one thing sequels do is try to double-size the original. So CASINO is bigger - there’s a much bigger explosion in the first five minutes, there’s twice as many people getting whacked, there’s a bigger cast, the f-bomb is dropped a 100 more times (literally), there’s two blow-jobs instead of the measly one, I mean, even the soundtrack is a double disc collection.
Robert De Niro, in his last of eight roles in Scorsese’s films, has a much more prominent role than GOODFELLAS as the film’s protagonist, Sam “Ace” Rothstein, who is based on real-life Las Vegas casino mogul and mafia associate Frank Rosenthal.
Rothstein's story is one of power and indulgence, perfect for Scorsese’s scope, but although there are a number of top notch sequences, the film never matches GOODFELLA’S go-for-broke spirit which was fueled by improvised dialogue and the sense of first learning about the inner-workings of a shadowy underworld.
As visually stimulating as much of CASINO is, and with cinematographer Robert Richardson’s impeccable eye on the job it can be very visually stimulating, we never feel like we’re learning anything new that we haven’t seen in tons of other movies and TV shows that have thugs skimming money, gamblers getting roughed up, and sleazy hustlers running out of luck (James Woods does nail that last one here though). Seems like the only thing I really learned was that if you're going to murder someone in the desert, make sure you dig a hole for the body in advance.
The way the system works, which should be obvious to anybody who's even just thought about this stuff before, is summed by De Niro via voice-over: “In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men. The pit bosses are watching the floor men. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I'm watching the casino manager. And the eye-in-the-sky is watching us all.”
In its best moments, Scorsese’s eye in-the-sky makes us feel like we’re on the floor with De Niro, Mob enforcer Joe Pesci (again a very similar character to his thick headed violent persona in GOODFELLAS), casino manager Don Rickles, and shift bosses such as Joe Bob Briggs (film critic gets once-in-a-lifetime part in a Scorsese movie! Good for him), as the tension mounts over the game in play.
One element that CASINO sadly doesn’t double down on is humor. A large part of what made GOODFELLAS so great is the comic edge to it all. It had more laughs than most comedies, along with tons of quotable lines. I just watched CASINO, but I can’t remember a single of Pesci’s lines; there’s nothing like “What, do you got me on a fuckin' pay-no-mind list kid?” to speak of.
CASINO doesn’t just echo Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, it also recalls his 1980 classic RAGING BULL in the dysfunctional relationship De Niro has with Sharon Stone as a floozy turned gangster prostitute (fun fact: Sharon Stone auditioned for the part of Vickie La Motta in RAGING BULL). Stone did do some of her most engaging work in CASINO, and earned the film's only Oscar nomination (she lost to Susan Sarandon in DEAD MAN WALKING).
At times CASINO works because of its connection to the invigorating flow of GOODFELLAS, but too often it feels like an artificial extension of the style. It has to be said that David Chase's HBO series The Sopranos was a much better extension of the style.
I was talking to my friend, Kevin Brewer on his postmodcast the other day and caught myself saying some like that if GOODFELLAS didn’t exist, then maybe CASINO would be the awesome epic it’s supposed to be, but that’s just the kind of thing a film geek like me would meaninglessly speculate.
CASINO is a Scorsese film that’s been glossed over in his filmography - the full-length TCM Career Profile on Scorsese that accompanies THE DEPARTED DVD barely mentioned it - and that’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be completely dismissed. Despite its “been there, done that” shortcomings, it feels like a gamble to double their winnings that Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pileggi had to make.