Snake Eyes

Casino might have been a great movie if it were an hour shorter. Instead, it goes on and on in search of a cheesy grandeur it never finds. In that sense the movie very much resembles the city of Las Vegas, where most of the action takes place. Director Martin Scorsese has imported his cast of garishly vulgar hoods from his 1990 film GoodFellas (he and Nicholas Pileggi collaborated on both scripts); the wiseguys have different names and slightly different histories, but they're all cut from the same piece of — polyester — cloth.

The change of locale suits them. Back east, in Good Fellas, they were comically out of place in the beautifully green suburbs they lived in: nouveau-riche rubes, like the Beverly Hillbillies, only armed and stupidly violent. In the limitless glitter of Vegas, they're virutally invisible, because everyone else is wearing the same cheap suits and talking the same semiliterate blue-collar patois as they shuffle among the slot machines. They're in their element, feeding on all that cash.

Scorsese has certainly demolished whatever myths about the Mafia The Godfather might have evoked. His gangsters have no honor and no real family ties; they're cash sharks who not only use violence and murder as tools but often seem to revel in it. For them it's not just business: It's an expression of hate and contempt. Their passion flows to even the most obscure branch of sociopathy.

Joe Pesci dominates Casino as he did GoodFellas — by playing essentially the same character. Here he's called Nicky Santoro; he's a psychopath whose machine-gun chatter can turn instantly ugly. He spits out “fuck”s like broken teeth, and he's apt to start swinging at opponents with any tool at hand: a pen, a telephone receiver, a fist. He relishes his loutish evil, and when he complains that he's just a guy trying to make a living, not even he believes it.

He calls his boyhood friend Sammy Rothstein (Robert De Niro) ” the golden Jew.” The epithet neatly expresses the paradox of Sammy's position in the organization: He's a valuable outsider, the possessor of a unique talent to run a casino, but he's not Italian. When things are going well, his Jewishness doesn't matter, but it's always there. He's a resident alien in the land of the mob.

Much of the movie's first hour seems nearly like a documentary about casinos. Both Sammy and Nicky narrate in voice-over, emphasizing a fact we all know but don't talk much about: that gambling is about relieving people of their money — much of which used to (and maybe still does) end up in the hands of crime bosses in the Midwest. There's an astonishingly straightforward scene in the counting room, where the dons' emissary quietly loads cash into a suitcase while the counters go about their business, scrupulously not paying attention.

Out on the floor, meanwhile, Rothstein and his minions ceaselessly patrol, looking for small-time scammers. A luckless cheat who's caught in the act finds himself in a back room, where beefy guards hold him down as another thug smashes his fingers with a ball-peen hammer.

Until the end of the movie, there's less shooting than there was in GoodFellas, but there's a lot of crude, bloody violence. Scorsese has mastered the unevitable art of filming graphic gore without condemning or condoning it. He's matter-of-fact and unblinking; he understands that it's an essential part of the underworld that fascinates him. In the movie's most horrible scene, Nicky places an uncooperative captive's head ina vice and starts cranking. Eyes pop; blood flows; there's a cracking noise that fills the theater.

Rothstein, meanwhile, acts as something of a counterweight to Nicky's violent loose-cannonism. His is the voice of reason and moderation; he wants the noise level kept down so that the casino can go about the business of making money unmolested by the local authorities.

De Niro turns the neat trick of being restrained without becoming dull; his face, even at its most impassive, is intensely alive. Even Nicky's most outrageous moments can't push him over the edge. Only Ginger (Sharon Stone), his wife and the mother of his daughter, can do that. Like everyone else in the movie, she's trapped in a past of scam-artistry and substance abuse; she's got an old boyfriend, Lester Diamond (James Woods, looking like a sleazy Sonny Bono), she can't give up on.

The domestic difficulties that accelerate between Sam and Ginger rob Casino of its formidable momentum. They're bores: She's a gold digger, and he's a middle-aged man who likes having a blond bombshell on his arm. As the movie proceeds, her drinking and drugging become wilder and more unpredictable, until she finally tries to skip the country with her daughter and Lester.

All mob movies seem to end in indiscriminate blood baths, and Casino is no exception. Rothstein's firing of an idiot floor manager who happens to be somebody's brother-in-law sets in motion a chain of events that exposes the casino's mob ties. Eventually the dons appear in court, hitched up to oxygen tanks so that no now will believe they're still dangerous. During a recess they convene in the parking lot and order up a big parade of hits. Anyone who knows anything gets whacked.

The mass killings at the end are like the finale of a fireworks display on the Fourth of July; an orgasmic, sky-filling blast that can only be followed by exhaustion. There's nothing left; nobody's still standing. Even the buildings themselves are dynamited, to make room for bigger and better ones run by corporations.

The movie sounds a final, cynical note about “progress” — a note Scorsese himself might do well to heed. Casino is GoodFellas II; there's more of it, but it's not better. The three-hour length of the movie calls unpleasant attention to the human smallness of every character in it, and no amount of brilliant acting and directing can make those mean figures seem any greater.

Casino opens Wed, Nov. 22, at area theaters.

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