Martin Scorsese's new and sensational "Casino" comes from a script written by the director and screenwriter-author-journalist Nicholas Pileggi, but it's hard to believe another name doesn't belong somewhere in the credits: John Milton.
Yes, that John Milton, the original Uncle Miltie of English lit. For "Casino" is really "Paradise Lost" Vegas-style, a study of monumental and character-driven folly. Its majestic chronicle tracks two men who inherited the Garden of Eden and managed in a very short time to destroy everything for no more cogent reason than their own bitter and unmalleable pride, which goeth before the fall every darn time. They are banished, as were the original inhabitants, by a cosmic force. In Adam and Eve's case it was God; in Ace and Nicky's case, it was Remo Gaggi, boss of all bosses. Same difference.
The movie is only lightly fictionalized from authentic events of the '70s, which explains its often messy, sprawling nature; truth is always a less tidy storyteller than a pro sitting at a word processor working from an outline. At the same time, Scorsese has done something radical in his telling. He's chosen to construct the piece as a symphony for voice. It is narrated, alternatively, by its antagonists -- Sam "Ace" Rothstein, the gambling genius, and Nicky Santarro, the made guy whose sociopathic tendencies limit his world view considerably. We watch as these two -- and occasional other voices -- give their unique spin on events that ultimately result in a bloody Mafia war, which is to point out for the squeamish that the film is mercilessly clinical in its depictions of conflict at the wrong end of a bullet or a baseball bat.
Scorsese begins with a narrative trick that is the only cheap thing in the film, the seeming death of one of the characters, which gives the impression that the events we are about to witness are narrated by a corpse, a la "Sunset Boulevard." This yields a reverse that, three hours later, hardly seems worth the trouble, more a high school lit mag gimmick than any true revelation.
The story essentially begins in the minds of the two men and in their conception of Las Vegas, which in turn controls their destiny. For Ace (Robert De Niro, smooth, slick, very very smart), Vegas is a system of which he is the master. Assigned by the Chicago mob to run a huge casino, he loves the intricacy of the place, the sense of units within units checking on each other, and the TV cameras that watch it all. (There's a great deal of fascinating but ultimately anti-dramatic exposition on casino operations.) He knows that a goodly portion of the cash is skimmed off the top each week by the boys who are the casino's secret owners, and it probably irritates him, but he also knows there are some things he cannot control.
And control is at the very center of Ace's consciousness. By reputation the best gambler in America, the only sure winner, he achieved that status by fanatical research and discipline. He's essentially a mathematician, not a gangster, an Ahab of the odds.
His boyhood chum Nicky (Joe Pesci) has a more rudimentary brain. Primarily a hard-wired predator, he looks on Vegas as a watering hole on the savannah where he can pounce on and devour less formidable herbivores. He stands for the random chaos and the violence of the universe: He sees no larger picture but feels only his own appetites and understands only his own aggressive impulses, both of which he must feed or cease to exist. His thing is to steal and thereby imprint the power of his will on an indifferent universe.
Thus Ace will always counsel patience and the big picture, the steady flow; Nicky wants to bust down doors, kill anyone who gets in the way and bust the till. It is simply not in them to get along; their genes decree differently and almost mandate the tragedy that they invent.
Two things make this situation intolerable. That is that they really do love and respect each other and we can read in both their faces the loyalty that compels them to hold back when dealing with the other. The other is a woman.
Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone, really acting instead of merely showing off the planes of her face and the shape of her body) is herself flawed, just as the love that Ace feels for her is itself flawed. Why does Ace love her? Well, she's smart, she's beautiful, she's a hustler. She is, in a sense, Vegas herself. But possibly the real reason he loves her expresses his own darkness: because he knows she will never love him. And that itself leads to a yet more interesting question: Why?
The answer is that she can't. She is self-destructively committed to her former pimp, a sleazeball named Lester Diamond (James Woods in polyesters and a Wayne Newton mustache) and she'll always, like the idiot scorpion idiotically stinging the idiot frog in midstream, choose Lester (or, eventually, Nicky) over the man who loves her and gives her everything, from respectability to protection. "Casino" is possibly the most fatalistic movie any studio ever spent $50 million on; it's a commercial from the
limbic system that advises sternly that your irrational impulses will almost always destroy you, ho ho ho.
And that, too, is the cacophony of violence, profanity, deceit, self-destruction, drug abuse that is "Casino," as these helpless players struggle against their nature and are destroyed by it. Yet the film, at three hours length, is almost pathologically intense and absorbing. It feels as though it's 20 minutes long, and it shows America's greatest film director at the full extension of his powers. It's so good it's scary.
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Sharon Stone
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Realesed by Universal
Rated R (extreme profanity and violence)
Sun Score: *** 1/2