Casino was released in 1995 and directed by Martin Scorsese. The film was his second one that was based on a book by author Nicholas Pileggi. Unlike many other films, this one is based on a true story and follows detail pretty closely. The main characters in the film are named Sam Rothstein and Nicky Santoro, whereas the actual people were named Frank Rosenthal and Anthony Spilotro, respectively. That adds a whole new perspective to the film since we know that much of what we are watching did indeed happen. According to Rosenthal himself, the movie is about 70% accurate.
Playing Sam Rothstein is none other than Robert De Niro, supported by Sharon Stone as Ginger Rothstein, Sam's wife, and Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro, Sam's friend. There are many other familiar faces from Scorsese's film Goodfellas, his prior mafia epic. Like Goodfellas, this film is filled with the violence and seedy, yet classy environment of the underworld.
The basic plot is that Sam is a good handicapper who is given control of a new casino, the Tangiers, which is bankrolled by the Kansas City mafia. He moves out to Las Vegas to run the place, and he runs it very well, keeping out scam artists and cheaters. After a while, he becomes romantically involved with Ginger, a respected hustler who makes her rounds in Vegas, but has a troubled personality and history. He is later joined by his gangster pal Nicky Santoro, who moves out to Vegas with the intentions of conquering the city's criminal rackets.
One of the best things about this film is its soundtrack. Since the film takes place in the 1960s and 1970s, we are treated to all sorts of great music from classic artists. The soundtrack occupies two compact discs, giving you an idea of how much of a role the music plays in this movie. Along with the classic rock, blues, and pop songs are two classical gems by Bach and Georges Delerue.
This film also features what I consider one of the greatest opening credits sequences of all time. The camera rolls over waves of flashing lights, which represent the flashiness that Vegas is all about. In the background, Bach's striking Matthaus Passion is playing, which is one of my favorite classical songs. The only complaint that I have about the beginning of the movie is the scene where a car explodes and a dummy is painfully visible in the front seat. Marty, how on earth could you have missed this?!
De Niro really carries his role well. He plays a real tough guy, but at the same time we see how vulnerable he is to women. Despite his questionable background, he wants to play the casino 'straight' and not get involved in any activities that could get him removed by the gaming board. De Niro's wardrobe is also one of the most interesting parts of the film, featuring a colorful, and sometimes hideous, collection of two-piece suits.
This is also one of Sharon Stone's best performances, if not her best performance. She plays the role of the drugged up wife very convincingly, with very real emotion. We watch with horror as she goes from being a classy hustler to a bored housewife with a severe drug problem with a certain horror. By the end of the film, she makes us hope that our own wives will never end up acting like her. She should have won an Academy Award for this performance, but she did not.
Joe Pesci also gives out an amazing and hilarious, yet disturbing performance as Nicky Santoro. At the beginning of the film, he is a lowly gangster, but by the end of the film he has created his own criminal empire and exhibits a lot of power in a scary way. His performance in this film is very similar to the one he gave in Goodfellas, with essentially the same explosive personality, although quite a bit darker.
The set locations are perfect for this film since all of the casino shots were taken inside of an actual Vegas casino. At the same time, the casino was convincingly reverted to the film's era, making us feel like we are in the early days of Vegas. It is definitely not the modern commercialized Las Vegas, but the older, frightening, yet classy Vegas where you don't try to rip off the casinos out of fear.
Scorsese uses a lot of shots with an interesting light effect, where bright light is shone brightly onto one or more actors in the shot. This creates a surreal appearance and makes the person look superior or even godlike. He also pulls some very interesting camera angles and uses special effects sparingly.
One of the things that Scorsese does really well is to explain everything the viewer without making it boring. Right at the beginning of the movie, he explains who everyone is and how the casino was started. Throughout the movie, characters engage in narration to reveal their thoughts where we might otherwise be left guessing. I think this adds a nice touch and we feel as though we are inside the character's head as they give the narration.
Overall, this is one of my favorite films of all time and definitely one of my favorite Scorsese films. It is a true shame that he did not win an Academy Award for this achievement, since he clearly deserved it. I regard it as a must-see film, valuing it both for its entertainment and history.