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Good filmmaking is rightly lauded in modern cinema. Consistently good filmmaking is damn close to a miracle. Take a look at the films of Martin Scorsese, and it’s very possible that this little guy with bushy eyebrows is the closest thing filmmaking has to a god amongst men. Casino is no exception.

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Told mostly as a narrated flashback, Casino introduces us to life-long friends Ace & Nicky, who come to Las Vegas in the service of their old-school Italian mob leaders. The old men saw Vegas as virgin territory for profit and their agents go to ensure the cash flow. Ace, a natural born gambler, quickly becomes involved with a casino, the Tangiers, helping the already-assumed house wins to grow to giant proportions while Nicky begins carving out a little criminal empire of his own, free from interference or even much oversight from back home. A grifting hooker, corrupt politicans and the hubris of these friends are the aggravating factors that cause their endeavors to start coming undone, and in the process it’s likely Ace and Nicky will come undone as well.

There was a time when a film like this would have Ace and Nicky be a close-knit wise-cracking criminal duo. Ace would be the smiling, charming face of the operation, while Nicky works behind the scenes with brass knuckles, a baseball bat and a silenced .22 to get the real business done. In other words, they’d be the villains in the story. Casino instead focuses on Ace and Nicky as protagonists. We don’t see them as victims or even great guys, but they’re still human beings with dreams and ambitions just like any other. Putting a face on ‘the bad guys’ is something Scorsese is legendary for doing, and Casino is a shining example of this work.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
“I am, in fact, talkin’ t’ you, Ace.”
“Yeah, well, you amuse me, Nicky.”

Scorsese is also known for having an eye for talent. Casino was the 8th film he made with Robert DeNiro. Playing Ace, DeNiro’s intensity is focused entirely on how his character is trying to keep things together. Here’s a man who knows a sure bet when he sees it, bets with confidence and never loses. The very prospect of losing doesn’t even occur to Ace; left to his own devices, he’d achieve just about anything he went after. When Nicky and Ginger get involved, though, you can feel Ace’s frustration, the sort of anger a stereotypical villain might rant abouot at the drop of a hat only to put some outrageous scheme of revenge into motion. Ace is too smart for that, though. He plays his hand close to his chest.

Nicky, on the other hand, may not be playing with the entire deck. As much as it seems sometimes that Joe Pesci only has one role, he plays things so well here it’s hard to hold some repetition of roles against him. Nicky is as ambitious as he is uncompromising. Where Ace does business with a handshake, Nicky does it with a bat. Where Ace tries to keep the peace, Nicky itches for action. Yet these two are friends, and very close ones. They really are flip sides of the same coin, a bright and lucrative coin that spins through the air and catches the lights of the Vegas strip. As the film goes on, it’s hard to say which side of the coin is going to land right-side up.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
Yeah. She’s pretty distracting.

Further complicating matters is Sharon Stone as Ginger. At first appearing as the sort of arm candy that shows up with high rollers to skim a bit for herself, Ginger becomes the one unpredictable variable in Ace’s life that starts to unravel the disparate threads he’s woven together. While none of the main characters are unaffected by Las Vegas, and indeed all of them succumb to varying degrees of decadence and depravity, Ginger is the one most dragged under by the the booze, drugs and lifestyle that was Sin City in the 70s and 80s. We watch her fall apart practically before our eyes, from her inability to seperate herself from her manipulative boyfriend and pimp to the lengths she’ll go to further her own ends, especially when it comes to the daughter she has with Ace. Everything goes to hell in a gradual fashion, a painful and inevitable backslide that unfolds as the movie rolls on.

While the movie is not painful in a bad or sickening way, it’s quite an ordeal to sit through. It’s nearly three hours long, and much of that is featuring fights, arguments, breakdowns and discomfort on a public or private level. There’s moments of levity and vindication, to be sure; the acting, writing and direction are all fantastic; the soundtrack is top-notch and walks us through the changing times as much as the cinematography does – but the overall length of the narrative begins to wear on the viewer. And it’s only at the very end that Scorsese delivers the ultimate point of his story.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
“You sure I should be wearin’ this color, Marty?”
“Bobby, I ain’t let ya down yet, I ain’t startin’ now.”

This movie is a eulogy for Vegas of old. It’s the sort of movie that longs for old-fashioned machismo, the slight haze of cigarette smoke in back rooms while the glitz and glamour flash in the eyes of suckers betting against the house run by the Mob. Nowadays, suckers bet against the house run by corporations. Ace lays it out for us: “In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s like chekin’ into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky to get it by Thursday.” His arc follows that of Vegas itself. He rises out of nowhere into the Nevada desert, fastitious and self-assured. His life begins to spiral out of control, from his ne’er-do-well wife to his taste in clothes. And when all is said and done, he’s still the same guy – but hollowed out, older, a shadow of his former self.

That’s what makes Casino such an effective tragedy. That’s what makes it worth the long running time and Sharon Stone’s chewing of scenery. That’s why it’s one of Scorsese’s many great pictures, and why it should be on your Netflix queue. It is, like many memorable and timeless stories, a cautionary tale: Excess and success are not the same thing. If you’re unable to moderate your excesses when you’re successful, life’s circumstances are likely to take it all away from you. All you can count on, in the end result, is being who you are, and if you aren’t careful, they can take that away from you, too. Just a little bit of wisdom, and a touch of keeping your goals in sight, goes a long, long way.

Sorry, this is getting preachy. Watch Casino to see DeNiro in a salmon-colored suit. He looks fabulous.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.