Martin Scorsese understands gangsters better than anyone. With Mean Streets, he followed the life of small hoods in Little Italy. In Goodfellas, he showed us the ups and downs of gangster life for those who climb a few rungs up the ladder and then of course hit every rung on the way back down.Based in Las Vegas in the 1970s, the original Sin City, we are now presented with the hierarchy of the underworld, the absolute top of the tree.
Robert De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a professional player chosen by the crowd to run the city’s largest casino. He is a businessman who wants to run a business that is as legitimate as possible. However, when the childhood friend, psychopath Nicky Santoro, shows up with a completely different agenda, it is only a matter of time before cracks show up in her dazzling empire.
The film may be based on real events, but the story reads like a story from Greek mythology. Ace and Santoro are like gods, they are in a situation where they have monumental power, but like all Greek gods, they have fatal mistakes. Ace’s tragic mistake is falling in love with the sexy call girl Ginger (Sharon Stone), a beautiful seductress who screws her head and never falls in love with her pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods). Nicky’s Achilles’ heel is his ego and stupidity, and a clever aspect of the narrative is knowing that it will catch up with him, but not sure how or when.
Joe Pesci feels incredibly comfortable playing Nicky and seems to enjoy the role of a brutal, cold-blooded heavy. He somehow surpasses the violent presence he had previously achieved in Goodfellas, perhaps because in this situation where the world is her oyster, his spontaneous atrocities seem unnecessary. Santoro is a time bomb and whenever it is on the screen you know that it can go at any time. You wouldn’t have wanted to get to know the original character in real life, but it does provide electric cinema.
With a film that is based on a man’s world and mainly contains Scorsese’s stock cast, it is not surprising that the outstanding achievement belongs to Stone, who finally takes on a decent role and damn well makes the best of it and cries convincing through scenes as their character’s world falls apart. Their often weird relationship with their awkward pimp also offers a slight relief, a necessary dynamic, given the length of the film and Pesci’s disgustingly bloody moments that spurt across the screen and stain the memory.
Joe Pesci and De Niro
With Pesci and De Niro playing their umpteenth role in Scorsese’s films, it seems on the surface that Las Vegas casino is just Goodfellas, but this would be an unfair and naive assumption that the real story the film is based on disregarded. There is also a double narrative in which both De Niro and Pesci’s characters provide their versions of events in alternating voice-overs. This device works great and adds a deep layer that is not found in the prequel of the film. This makes the fate of the two protagonists all the more curious for the audience as the film begins with Ace being blown up in a car.
Like his colleague Nicholas Pileggi, an author who is famous for his gangster obsession, Scorsese makes these films not because of the praise that surrounds such characters or because gangster films are cool, but because of a real fascination with this lifestyle and the quality of the Stories that arises from it. This passion is expressed in the casino, a masterfully staged, played and edited epic that is sure to take time to tell its story because like Vegas itself knows that it will blind and seduce you.
This is a casino where you don’t feel briefly changed.