By DONALD PORTER
A ponderous, meandering beast of a crime epic, Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” takes many greatish elements and reduces them to tedious mediocrities.
Scorsese is a filmmaker with an affinity for stories about mobsters and their peculiar manner of doing business -- he directed “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas,” the latter of which is one of the finest films released since 1990. So he seems a natural for this tale of a mob-run Las Vegas casino in the ‘70s, before corporate America took the gaming racket away from organized crime.
Alas, Scorsese’s affinity for the minutiae of the gambling industry hobbles “Casino,” diverting attention from the characters and the story at hand: how gambler Sam “Ace” Rothstein and his childhood friend, Nicky Santoro, managed to screw up a gig that not only managed itself, but was also making them fabulously wealthy.
Robert De Niro stars as Rothstein, the guy the mob puts in charge of the Tangiers, a casino on The Strip.
The mistake Rothstein makes is allowing Santoro (Joe Pesci), the “made” mob guy who was his protector and best friend in their younger years, to move out to Vegas. Santoro is a nut-job -- a psychotic killer and hardened criminal who pursues life on the wrong side of the law with such gusto he’s eventually banned from all of the Vegas casinos and jeopardizes Rothstein’s position with the Nevada Gaming Commission.
And the catalyst for all this disaster is Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), as devious a call-girl and grifter as you can imagine. Rothstein marries her, although he knows she doesn’t love him -- then ruins himself, his marriage and his friendship with Santoro trying to control her like she was one of his business assets.
This story plays out against a macabre backdrop of bent-noses who shoot people in the head, bash out their brains with baseball bats, stab ballpoint pens into necks and, perhaps the most revolting, squeeze a man’s head in a vise until his eye pops out.
This is not a pretty, or subtle, film by any stretch.
The performances are good, especially Stone’s. But good as they are, both De Niro and Pesci are flexing gangster muscles both they, and we, are too familiar with by now.
The film is chock-full of supporting turns by a host of comics and character actors, including James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, L.Q. Jones and Dick Smothers -- all of whom are playing it straight.
Even in failure, Scorsese manages to be stylish. “Casino” may be too long by a third, and you may find yourself wishing some of the longer, more laborious scenes would come to a hasty conclusion. But you can’t take your eyes off the screen.