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Metronome Sessions

Film Review: Casino

22 November 20 words: George White

A quarter of a decade ago, Martin Scorsese took a trip to Vegas. But did it lead to a good film? Screen Co-Editor George White finds out...

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci
Running time: 178 minutes

When you think of Martin Scorsese in the 1990s, Goodfellas is almost always the film that springs to mind. Yet five years later came Casino which, while sometimes treading almost identical narrative beats to Scorsese’s 1990 gangster epic, offers similar levels of tension, violence and deception to Scorsese’s celebrated masterpiece. Is it half an hour too long? Yes. Is Joe Pesci’s character of Nicky Santoro basically a Vegas-dwelling Tommy DeVito? Absolutely. Is it still a great film? Pretty much.

Casino follows casino executive Sam 'Ace' Rothstein (Robert De Niro) as he battles his old mafia buddy Nicky for control of Vegas’ gambling scene. As Nicky becomes more powerful and more aggressive, Ace tries to wrestle back control - inevitably leading to bloodshed, extortion and adultery. Hey, what happens in Vegas, right?

Like Goodfellas, this is based on some semblance of a true story - taking inspiration from the life of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who ran casinos for the Chicago mob in the 1970s and 80s. Unlike Goodfellas, though, Casino’s pacing feels slightly off. At almost three hours, Scorsese drags out this story a little longer than is necessary, with certain scenes of gratuitous violence feeling slightly too, well, gratuitous.

That said, the writing is good enough to get a pass, with the director combining with Nicholas Pileggi - author of the book that inspired the film - to create a script that is, at times, genius. Like many Scorsese films, Casino is undoubtedly dialogue-heavy, but the dialogue is so well-written that it manages to keep the audience engaged even in slower periods.

De Niro is formidable in the leading role, demonstrating impressive range as Ace’s life starts to fall apart

Seeing the film’s two wildcard characters cross paths is gripping, providing an in-depth and no-holds-barred look into this brutal world. While it is, for obvious reasons, difficult to root for anybody in particular, Scorsese still manages to drum up significant tension from the opening scene, keeping plot points unpredictable and character decisions erratic throughout the film.

The exquisite storytelling gives the film’s stunning cast a chance to properly shine. De Niro is formidable in the leading role, demonstrating impressive range as Ace’s life starts to fall apart. As good as De Niro is when playing the mafia muscle, it is always a treat to see him in roles that challenge his emotional depth, and he undoubtedly thrives here. Pesci’s performance is slightly constrained by his one-dimensional character, but it is clear he is having fun throughout.

Yet it is Sharon Stone who deserves most praise, her performance as Ginger McKenna ultimately stealing the show. As Ginger decides to marry Ace and throw herself into the chaotic gambling scene, she slowly loses her confidence and her sanity, falling from grace with, well, very little grace at all. Stone nails every scene she is in, displaying natural charm when her character is on top and enthralling unpredictability when she falls to rock bottom. That Oscar nomination could - and probably should - have been a win.

Tense, brutal and incredibly well-written, Casino is definitely a film that feels slightly overlooked in Scorsese’s long and successful career. Sure, it is hardly a sharp left-turn from the likes of Goodfellas, and pacing issues blunt the impact of the movie ever so slightly, but this is still very much worth a watch. Next time you’re looking for a film, maybe roll the dice on this one (sorry).

Did you know? Most of the conversations between Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were improvised. Martin Scorsese would tell them where to start and where to end. The rest was up to them.

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