Director Martin Scorsese's pen-
chant for telling stories about
emotionally dysfunctional op-
portunists who connect with an
intimidating world through raging violence and self-destructive addictions has been one of the highlights of American cinema in recent years. His newest film, "Casino," is his third entry on the passions and pitfalls of the gangster world, a follow-up to the urban turmoil of "Mean Streets" (1973) and "Goodfellas" (1991).
But Scorsese has been lauded as America's greatest contemporary filmmaker for so long that it's difficult to view his films without a high degree of criticism. While "Casino" stands on its own as a dynamic, if over-long, exploration of the doomed-for-failure businessmen and hitmen in Las Vegas in the late '70s and early '80s, there's too much of Scorsese's early work in the movie to make it seem like much of an artistic success. In many ways, it could be titled "Goodfellas in Vegas" with its lengthy voice-overs, non-stop musical soundtrack, violent Joe Pesci antics, and the dreams of fortune and glory that become mired from the moral concessions made along the way.
The movie presents a group of midwestern mobsters who send their number one gambler, Sam Rothstein, to Vegas to manage a casino at the Tangiers hotel. Rothstein is a careful gambler, a mathematical card player whose knowledge of the ins and outs of gambling begin making the business of taking people's money a phenomenally lucrative one. Along with Rothstein, the mobsters also send Nicky Santoro, a violent hitman, to act as Rothstein's bodyguard and dispose of anyone who stands in the way. At first, their relationship is a mutually beneficial one, but things begin turning sour when Rothstein begins striving for legitimacy and Santoro's growing reputation as a hitman begins threatening their public image.
Rothstein's troubles are compounded by his relationship with Ginger McKenna (played by Sharon Stone in a surprisingly non-glamorous and intense performance), a hustler with one foot in the glittery casino culture and the other caught in a self-destructive relationship with a drug-addicted pimp. Rothstein marries Ginger, hoping that his material wealth and emphasis on personal trust will bring her out of her self-destructive environment, but it's not long before their priorities begin forcefully clashing.
"Casino" rolls through its three-hour running time with Scorsese's trademark visual ferocity and staccato editing. The images jump from one angle to another, sometimes dissolving between two moments in the same shot like a spotty memory. And Scorsese has perfected his longtime desire to visually mimic the way the human eye jumps from one position to another Ÿ from one angle, his camera whips in a flash pan and is succeeded by a new shot which slides into view. The effect is one of nervous observation, and the film easily develops an atmosphere of anticipation.
But despite the film's visual creativity and solid performances, the movie sometimes loses its spark when it becomes bogged down in the repetitive actions of its characters. While the road to self-destruction is paved with repeated mistakes, it certainly doesn't encourage narrative creativity. Santoro is always beating someone up, Mckenna is always overdosing, freaking out, and coming to Rothstein for forgiveness, and Rothstein is continually talking about trust and managing his casino with determined professionalism. The characters are well-rounded, but they never develop much after they're introduced and the movie begins running out of steam at various points along the way.
But while Scorsese's tricks are familiar, they're tricks that work, and "Casino" is certainly one of the better dramas this year. Its characters are trapped in a world of their own making, reaching for success while tumbling down the path of defeat. It's an emotionally complex and well-told movie with effective performances and a masterful command of cinematic grammar. But for fans of Scorsese's earlier work, the mixture can't help but to seem a little stale.
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