If Bugsy offers a founding myth of Las Vegas, Casino explains the town’s painful adolescence. Working in Goodfellas mode, Martin Scorsese brings old cronies Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci out to the desert and lets them narrate this story of sharp guys is sharkskin suits and bodies buried out in the sandy wastelands. The two make an uneasy team; Ace (De Niro) is a Jewish accountant whose steel-trap mind makes him efficient at running a casino and catching the scam artists who would prey on his dealers, while Nicky is Pesci’s usual loose-cannon character, bent on working whatever rackets the town has to offer. They’re order and chaos, and they’d probably kill each other if they weren’t both working for the old men back east.
Still, for all is stoic accountant’s cool, even Ace can’t help but want what he can’t have, in this case, a gold-digging shiksa named Ginger (Sharon Stone) with a parasitic ex-boyfriend (James Woods). He marries her and buys her mountains of jewelry, but there’s a part of her he can never possess because she, too, harbors desires beyond the price she’s willing to pay. For these three, Vegas is a house of cards, bound to collapse eventually, on top of at least one of these people.
Scorsese tries to build their story into an epic tragedy, though the characters don’t quite rise (or sink) to that level. But he succeeds in creating a milieu where grand dreams could play out — at least in a not-so-distant past, one more colorful and vivid than our own drab era.
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