America’s love affair with gangster flicks really started in the thirties and forties with those classic films, usually staring Jimmy Cagey. From there many mob films have been made but four remain forever at the apex of the lot, the first two Godfathers, Goodfellas and Casino. These films have redefined the genre and now all of them are available in special editions on DVD. Casino is a film that explores the mutual attraction between the mob and the growing city of Las Vegas that was at its height in the seventies. Both loved glitz, money and power. It was only natural that the gangsters of that day would flock to their holy land, Las Vegas. Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro) makes his opening appearance in the film flying through the air after just becoming the victim of a car bombing; it is his voice over narration that flows throughout the film, taking the audience on a wild ride through the ultimate sin city. Ten years before this event Rothstein was sent by his mob bosses back east to set up the Tangiers casino. Although Ace wants to run a clean show he is rapidly pulled into the more nefarious side of the town. To this end Rothstein surrounds himself with the right people to merge the criminal with legitimate business. Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) was a made man, a mafia solider back east, becoming the muscle for Ace. Nicky is particularly brutal, and sees Vegas as a perfect town for a man of his viscous talents. Billy Sherbert (Don Rickles) as a Vegas insider is perfect for the role Ace places him in, the manager of the Tangiers. Together the three proceed to squeeze every possible dime out of gamblers that are drawn to the bright lights of the casino.
Of course, a man of such power and financial means attracts beautiful women like the proverbial moth to a flame. In this case Ace becomes involved with Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a call girl that is well versed in keeping a man going for days until she leaves him broke and morally destitute. Ace seems desperate to win Ginger away from her pimp, Lester Diamond (James Woods), a complete waste of a man dependant upon Ginger as his only means of money. For some unknown reason Ginger actually has feelings for Lester actually displaying some degree of responsibility for the low life. Even though Ginger and Ace marry and start a family things start to go bad for them when Ace’s overt criminal activities gets him banned from casino work and he has to take up burglary as an alternate means of income.
There are several reasons why this film has become such a fan favorite; it has everything a gangster flick requires, fast life style, reversal of fortune, betrayal and violence. It has somewhat of a place in history with the infamous ‘f’ word used some 422 times; this is not your family friendly film by any means. But for the intended adult audience this is a gripping look at this normally forbidden world. There is no real hero in this story, no one that can be viewed by any stretch of the imagination as a good guy; there are only shades of grey present. Each character is out to make the best deal for them, taking what they can and hoping their bosses don’t catch on. Even the nominal love story thread between Ginger and Ace is one of self aggrandizement and personal gain. The violence is by now legendary. There are body parts shot off, bones smashed and a use for a vise that was never seen on This Old House. With all this said this film is not one for gratuitous pandering to such vile matters, it presents the graphic scenes without apology, as the way things where in that time and place.
One thing in common to all the great mob flicks is the presence of one actor, Robert De Niro. No one is able to hold the audience like this man and Casino is one of his finest performances. De Niro not only owns mob roles like this due to his imposing presence he is able to humanize violent characters such as Ace. This permits him to make an emotional connection with his audience, drawing us in and letting see life from a completely different perspective, one with rules far beyond what we are guided by. He allows us to travel with him as Ace moves from the heights of success to the depths of despair. Playing Ginger required an actress with a talent sufficient to hold up in her many scenes with De Niro, few actresses could have met this standard as did Sharon Stone. She won the 1996 Golden Globe for this performance and for very good reason; she is fantastic in this role. She also gives a sympathetic portrayal of a character with few redeeming qualities. Stone can strut along adorned in furs and jewelry one minute and the next present a woman worn and used by the world. There are few actors capable of playing over the top the way that Joe Pesci does. Like his other famous mob role in Goodfellas Pesci show the audience a violent man that truly finds a certain joy in his bloody work. It takes incredible control for an actor to take on such a role, there is always the danger of taking the performance too far. Pesci has the ability to go to the edge, inch over it and pull back to reality.
Martin Scorsese is the kind of director that does not invoke lukewarm reviews, people tend to either love his work or hate it. Personally, I enjoy the films presented by my fellow New Yorker, the man is a natural storyteller. His attention to details is his trademark, every little object in the scene is there for a reason and appropriate to the era. He gets the best possible performances out of his actors, especially with De Niro, a man that he has worked with more than any other actor. Scorsese likes to play with the camera angles. They swoop down over a set bearing down on an individual or move up to a tight focus showing the depth of emotion in the performance. Scorsese tends to film the off beat and his use of lighting and camera work gives the audience a visual que.
Universal is releasing a special tenth anniversary edition of this American classic film. Even if you have the DVD released in 2003 you will want this one. While many special editions are just repacking old material this gives new meaning to special. First of all the video is crystal clear. While Universal is presenting this in both pan & scan and anamorphic 2.35:1 releases forget the full screen variation and buy the widescreen. This is a grand visual film that requires every inch visible. The audio is in a dynamic Dolby 5.1. All six of your speakers will get a workout as explosions boom out of the sub woofer, the rear speakers full of acoustic details and the dialogue flowing from the center. For extras you could not ask for better. There are four featurettes that go into depth with every aspect of production. First there is the story. The collaboration between Martin Scorsese and the writer of the novel Nicholas Pileggi shows how two strong willed men managed to get the job done. Next there is a featurette about how the cast and crew where assembled and put to work. This is followed by the look, how the sets and props where used to bring the audience back to Vegas of the early seventies. Last there is film, detailing the painstaking work done by the film editors working with Scorsese to bring this film to the screen. Add some deleted scenes and you have a full weekend of entertainment. This is a must have edition of a great film.