I don’t know what it is, but there is something insidious about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Casino. Maybe it’s the incessant use of the F-word; maybe it’s the frenetic editing; maybe it’s Robert De Niro’s stoic, humorless performance juxtaposed against Joe Pesci’s foul-mouthed antics; maybe it’s the epic violence, or the threat of violence; maybe it’s the colors, the incessant 1950s and ’60s-era pop romantic tunes on the soundtrack; maybe it’s all of the above, but Casino, after about the first hour, starts to make a psychological impact on the viewer.
This wasn’t my favorite movie in the Nineties, but I am now having a re-evaluation of it, and I’ve come to realize there is almost nothing more entertaining than Pesci ranting in De Niro’s face. Casino has lots of that — most of its best scenes involve Pesci ranting in the legendary Bob’s face — and more, lots more. It’s a three-plus-hour epic about the mob in Vegas, and while it might require the specialization of a few taste buds, it’s worth the effort.
This is a Scorsese movie through and through, boasting all of the director’s signatures: the pop-rock soundtrack, the chatty narrator, the intricate knowledge of mob politics, a detailed analysis of organized crime, a compromised anti-hero, a vicious hoodlum, strong women, black humor, random violence, and an operatic sense of grandeur. The more you watch it, the more you get caught up in it. You endure long stretches where nothing much happens, only to see characters get beaten with hammers or baseball bats, or shot or stabbed, or clubbed with telephones. This is a movie about implied violence; it either comes, or it passes like a rain shower that never falls. We’re relieved, but we know there’s always another chance of rain in our forecast.
The movie reminds us of GoodFellas, and probably got snubbed at the Academy Awards because it is so very similar to Scorsese’s earlier, equally-Oscar-challenged, mob classic. After all, it stars De Niro and Pesci in roles reminiscent to those they played in GoodFellas, and both films describe, in loving detail, how the Mafia makes its money, kills people, etc. But Casino is still its own thing and Scorsese directs it with just as much passion. This movie should have had Oscars falling out of its pocket, but that year, the Academy went with Mel Gibson and Braveheart. Oh, well.
Mob movies by Scorsese probably aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that. The characters are selfish, self-obsessed, broken, addicted, controlling, scheming, violent and profane. The screenplay drifts from event to event, rather telling a cohesive story. We are neither asked nor expected to admire the characters. But like most of the best Scorsese films (and there are a lot of great ones), it hypnotizes; you can’t look away. I would rank this one with GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, and yep, The Wolf of Wall Street, as one of his best. You can’t look away.