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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Ace of Diamonds
by Robert Ford

Martin Scorsese considers Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino to be his gangster trilogy. Although most often associated with this genre, Scorsese directed only these three gangster films. Casino is frequently criticised for closely treading the same ground as Goodfellas. Both films are based on non-fiction books by Nicholas Pileggi, which in turn are based on real-life people and events. They both depict a characterís dramatic rise and fall in the world of crime. But whereas Goodfellas feels tight, cohesive and expertly crafted, Casino comes across as a more grand, sprawling epic. The two films can be seen as companion pieces to each other, complementing each other and expanding on the same themes.

Casino is a portrait of how, during the 1970ís, the mob gained and then lost control of Las Vegas. In an effort to make their business look legitimate, Chicago gangsters install gambling expert Sam ďAceĒ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) as the manager of their Las Vegas casino, the Tangiers. Aceís old friend, jewel thief Nick Santoro (Joe Pesci), arrives in town with a whole host of dodgy characters in tow. Their criminal activities soon begin to threaten the clean image of the casino. Meanwhile, Ace falls for former hooker Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone in role originally intended for Michelle Pfeiffer) even though he knows the only thing in the world that Ginger loves is money.

Casino -- a film dripping in glamour, full of jewels, private jets and suitcases of cash -- shows what happens when people squander their good fortune. The three main characters rise to great wealth and power and then, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, they lose everything because they let greed and ego take over their lives. It is a classic Icarus story -- the downfall is sudden, tragic and entirely self-inflicted.

Some viewers will be alienated by Casinoís unusual structure. It's basically a three-hour film without much drama for the first two hours. Only a director as skilled as Martin Scorsese could manage to keep such a film gripping all the way through. Much of the film presents a fascinating insiderís look at the workings of a huge casino, taking us right inside the world of 70ís Vegas. It sometimes feels like the ultimate mega-budget documentary. Aceís day-to-day running of the casino is depicted in Scorseseís dazzling visual style -- the camera swoops and glides through the rows of slot machines in his trademark long takes. Only in the third hour does human drama really take over and drive the film toward its tragic final reel.

Because of its abundance of violence and profanity, Casino will certainly not be to everyoneís taste. The extremely brutal violence occurs via such weapons of murder and torture as a fountain pen, a cattle prod, a hammer, a baseball bat and a large assortment of guns. The most infamous scene is, well, literally eye-popping. It shows a manís head being squeezed in a vice until his eye pops out. However, this shot is usually censored when the film appears on TV. Some will also find the swearing offensive. The "f word" is apparently used over 400 times -- Joe Pesci uses it as an adjective several times in almost every sentence.

Pesci and De Niro are excellent in roles similar to ones they have played for Scorsese before, but surprisingly it is Sharon Stone who steals the show. She spends much of her screen-time screaming hysterically at De Niro, but is utterly convincing as a woman whose life is spiralling out of control. She received her one and only Oscar nomination for this role and frankly it's an injustice that she didn't win.

Despite the great performances and technical skill on display, some viewers will find Casino too long and its depiction of place and period too detailed. Others will be put off by the violence and swearing. But to many, and to Scorsese fans in particular, this a virtuoso piece of work by a master filmmaker.

(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for strong, brutal violence, pervasive language, drug use and some sexuality.)

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