Americans love gambling movies almost as much as they love gambling itself. What's not to like? You get the thrill of a high-stakes cards game from the comfort of a multiplex. Over the last few years, though, something happened.
The gambling movie was replaced by ESPN. Suddenly, with the broadcast of the World Series of Poker, you didn't need to go to the theater anymore. You could channel that gambling thrill from the comfort of your well-worn couch. Out went the Cincinnati Kid, and in came Chris Moneymaker. But let's get something straight here: Chris Moneymaker is no Steve McQueen. Nobody in off-brand polos and wrap-around mall sunglasses can be that cool. So, in honor of this week's cover story, Jacked Pot, on the dirty and lucrative casino racket in Florida, we present the top ten gambling movies of all time.
10. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Lead guy Eddy bets a fortune in a game of three card brag only to lose it all to some improbable hand. Surely a dilemma all card sharks have faced at some point. Except, Eddy owes the dough to some mobster named Harry the Hatchet, and he has to pay it back at an amphetamine'd pace while being directed by a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie. No easy task. Realness meter: Dubious at best. Poker After Dark has been more authentic.
9. Rounders. Rounders is the Goodfellas of poker. Not in the greatest-Scorsese-movie-kind-of-way, but in the way that it made a lot of guys who look like Ray Liotta think they could play as well as Matt Damon. Talk to any of the hotshot players at Magic City Casino's poker room, and inevitably they'll cite John Dahl's 1998 cult flick as gospel. Realness meter: Only as believable as John Malkovich's Russian accent.
8. Bugsy. Bugsy Siegel, the Jewish gangster who fathered Las Vegas gets the biopic treatment in this 2-hour epic, also known among cineastes as the movie where Warren Beatty finally banged Annette Bening. Siegel's idea to build the first casino in the middle of the Nevada desert is as irrational as a deadbeat poker player's belief that this next hand will finally be the one that wins back his welfare check. Realness meter: If you bought Warren Beatty as a fey womanizing hairstylist in Shampoo, you will buy Warren Beatty as a fey womanizing gangster.
7. A Hole in the Head. You can't actually have a gambling movie list without Sinatra, who all but personifies Vegas. In this Frank Capra classic, which was actually filmed at the Magic City Casino in 1959, Sinatra plays a deadbeat dad with a penchant for losing money at the tracks. He ends the movie singing High Hopes, surely the unofficial theme song of desperate gamblers everywhere. Realness meter: More believable than Sammy Davis Jr. as a slick thief in the original Ocean's Eleven.
6. Leaving Las Vegas. In this prequel to National Treasure, Nicolas Cage plays an adventurous archeologist with a gambling problem and a weakness for kind-hearted hookers. It ends well: with Cage winning an Oscar. Commonly referred to as The Wrestler of its day! Realness meter: As legit as an episode of Intervention.
5. The Cooler. William H. Macy spends most of this underseen indie from 2003 looking like a house falling down. He's a cooler, a loser hired by casinos to break other players' lucky streaks. That is until he falls in love, and actually becomes a walking lucky charm, losing the casino thousands, and infuriating his boss, a menacing Alec Baldwin in full-throated Glengarry mode. Realness meter: Macy's portrayal of those glazed-over, zombie eyes most slot jockeys sport is uncanny.
4. The Cincinnati Kid. From 1965, the granddaddy of all gambling movies. Steve McQueen plays "The Kid," a five card stud player with more precision than any of the gungslingers in The Magnificent Seven. After slaying most hard-nosed players in Cincinnati, he takes on the man, Lancey Howard, played by Little Caesar himself, Edward G. Robinson. The final hand is a prolonged mano-a-mano with more tension than a Bernard Herrmann score. Realness meter: (Spoiler!) In the end, the upstart loses to the man; that's as close to the bone as it gets folks.
3. Casino. In Martin Scorsese's epic, Robert De Niro plays the manager of the Tangiers, who slowly loses his fortune after getting mixed up with a common-street strumpet, Sharon Stone. In the meantime, he rhapsodizes about Vegas like a goombah philosopher. "The cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back;" "all the bright lights, and the comp trips, and all the champagne, and free hotel suites, and all the broads and all the booze. It's all been arranged just for us to get your money;" and the classic: "You can either have the money and the hammer or you can walk out of here." Scorsese was so taken with industry, his upcoming HBO show, Boardwalk Empire, tracks the rise of Atlantic City. Realness meter: The crooked senator's lines are taken from actual testimony by Harry Reid, current Senate majority leader, then head of Nevada Gaming Commission.
2. Croupier. Serious gamblers love gambling movies as much as real mobsters love gangster pictures. Why? They make them look good. Your average gambler doesn't look like Clive Owen, but playing a struggling writer turned manic craps dealer, Owen makes addiction look smoldering.
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1. The Good Thief. Nobody wants to see Matt Damon win a card game. We want to see a desperate, dilapidated basket case win, because in the end, that's what all gamblers are. And if the basket case in the movie wins, then maybe we also win. In The Good Thief, that guy is Bob Montagnet, a former thief and ace blackjack player with a heroin addiction played by the patron saint of fuck-ups, Nick Nolte. Bob's mantra: Play to the limit, no matter what the consequences. Realness meter: Nolte's weary mug has more lines than a whiskey drinker's. That's not method acting, folks. With its booze-soaked, Leonard Cohen soundtrack, neon-colored photography, this is as close to poetry as the genre has ever produced.
Did we miss anything? Write it in the comments, though, if you pick Ocean's Eleven we'll take you as an amateur and/or a tool.
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