Martin Scorsese adapts another Nicholas Pileggi book chronicling the lives of "wise guys" and casts Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in the leads. All the ingredients are in place for another GOODFELLAS. And that is precisely the biggest problem with CASINO. It was done before, and better, as GOODFELLAS. The story of how the mob ran and then lost Las Vegas feels a lot like GOODFELLAS OUT WEST. You have to admire Scorsese's perverse persistence in fashioning a nearly three-hour movie filled with endless narrated details, dozens of characters and situations and yet not give us a single character whom we can root for. This is a formula that worked for such films as MEAN STREETS and GOODFELLAS, but those films were filled with dark humor and featured several outstanding performances, especially De Niro's in MEAN STREETS and Joe Pesci's in GOODFELLAS. Despite the presence of both De Niro and Pesci, the best performance in CASINO comes from Sharon Stone as De Niro's ex-prostitute wife. Her performance may have been a touch overrated, given how unexpected it was, but she still manages to make more of an impression than her two dynamic co-stars.
Like Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese often makes great use of narration, but in CASINO, virtually the entire film is narrated, sometimes to a point where after the narrator says something ("The cops thought his hero sandwich was a gun"), a character repeats it ("It's a hero sandwich!"). MEAN STREETS and GOODFELLAS had pages of memorable dialogue but there are few if any classic "Scorsese Meets Abbott and Costello" routines here. Scorsese's use of popular music, especially great tunes by The Rolling Stones, to underscore scenes, is as effective as in any previous film, but none of Scorsese's stylistic trademarks can cover the fact that these are some of the least colorful hoods and lowlifes he has ever presented us with. While the characters are drab, the violence is more horrifying than almost anything in GOODFELLAS. Particularly gruesome are scenes in which a man's head is put in a vice and then squeezed to a point where one of his eyes pop out, and two thugs are beaten to bloody pulps with baseball bats, stripped and buried alive in the desert.
The parallels to GOODFELLAS are not exact, but too often scenes come up that resemble a much better one from that film. Joe Pesci, playing another ultra-violent and uncontrollable thug, has yet another scene in a bar with De Niro and Frank Vincent ("Billy Batts" from GOODFELLAS) where he beats somebody nearly to death. There is also the by now standard late-inning bloodbath, familiar from GOODFELLAS and the GODFATHER films, where everybody who knows anything gets "whacked". In THE GODFATHER, these scenes were brilliantly ironic, with Michael Corleone professing his denouncement of Satan at his nephew's baptism while, outside, the heads of all five mob families were being brutally dispatched on his orders. In GOODFELLAS, the series of murders were most shown after they happened, the bodies turning up all over town in bizarre places making the character of gangster Jimmy Conway all the more frightening. In CASINO, it just feels like a convenient and unimaginative way to wrap up the story, even if such events did occur in real life.
CASINO is the first Martin Scorsese film to comes off as an attempt to make a Martin Scorsese film. It is Scorsese doing an imitation of himself. It's an accurate imitation, and there are moments of pure brilliance, but I prefer the real thing. ½ - JB
CATHERINE THE GREAT
This was the last film appearance for Martin Scorsese's
mother Catherine, who died in 1997. In CASINO, she has a small
part as the mother of a hood and, as usual, she is cooking dinner,
something she often did in real life for the cast and crew of
Scorsese's films. Even though she is only in the film about three
minutes, she completely steals her scene with her natural comic
timing as she makes faces and objects to the foul language her mobster
son is using. Martin Scorsese dedicated 1997's KUNDUN to her.