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You don't want to wager against Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a professional sports gambler whose handicapping prowess is so formidable that he can change the odds merely by placing his bet. Ace makes scads of money for a coterie of delighted Midwestern mob bosses, who eventually reward him with the stewardship of his own casino on the Vegas strip. "It turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that valuable," opines Ace's boyhood pal Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a vicious enforcer whose arrival in Vegas signals the beginning of the end for Ace's sweet deal.
We've come to expect incredible movies from collaborations between Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, GoodFellas A even New York, New York had its moments. Expectations for Casino run so high that there's probably no way this Seventies saga of lust, greed, and betrayal under the scorching Vegas sun could have lived up to them. But damn if it doesn't come close.
At first Nicky's muscle complements Ace's brains perfectly, and the two old chums share a ride on an express elevator to the top of the Vegas heap. But with their dizzying ascent comes ego inflation, a problem further exacerbated by the shenanigans of Ace's unhappy hooker housewife Ginger (Sharon Stone), who sleeps with both men despite loving neither and succeeds in turning them against each other.
"Paradise," assesses Nicky of the trio's early days in Vegas. "We managed to fuck it up."
Scorsese rules his domain better than his star-crossed protagonists do theirs. He deftly transforms Nicholas Pileggi's Greek tragedy (the movie is based on Pileggi's book about real-life gambler-turned-casino-honcho Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal) into a cinematic morality play of the highest order. Scorsese's direction has never been surer; he seamlessly melds a variety of styles, colors, camera techniques, and music into one brilliant whole.
Casino falls short of the standard set by Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but not by much. Those films are classics; this one is merely excellent. (Expect to hear a lot of comments along the lines of "GoodFellas goes to Vegas.") At nearly three hours in length, the movie is long but never boring.
This being a Scorsese film, you expect and receive bravura acting from De Niro and Pesci. What you don't expect is that Sharon Stone will give the best performance of her career, and that it will be on a par with the big boys. But she does, and it is. How you gonna beat Scorsese when long shots like that come through for him? You can't. His instincts are rivaled only by Ace Rothstein's.
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