Paradise lost

In Milton's Paradise Lost, as God casts him out of paradise, Lucifer declares, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n," a sentiment not unlike ones expressed by the vicious lowlifes that infest Martin Scorsese's brilliant new film, Casino.

The idea of going legitimate--at least the way normal people understand the term--is as foreign to the seedy players in Scorsese's Vegas as the Russian alphabet. Nothing worth having is worth paying retail for, no crime so heinous that it's not worth the stint in the slammer. And if paradise truly was lost, well, that's just because the Italians weren't running things.

Paradise in this case is The Strip--Las Vegas, Nevada, world capital of gambling and graft, prostitution and crime, and every other vice imaginable. (Fifty years after Bugsy Siegel first broke ground, money has indeed proven to be the only thing aside from cactus that actually grows in the desert.) Along with Wall Street and Washington, Vegas is a unique bastion, possibly the only place on earth where greed and corruption are not only permissible--they are practically prerequisites for citizenship. The casinos bilk the gamblers, the mob bosses steal from the casinos, the hustlers skim from the bosses--it's an ecosystem of dishonesty in which the rules of engagement are as immutable as they are unfathomably heartless: Deny everything. Never rat out your friends. Keep your mouth shut. Lay off another man's girl. And above all, don't steal from the big guys, but if you do, don't get caught.

Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro) knows all the rules. He has grown up and grown wise and grown rich living by them. In Las Vegas, these rules include under-the-table deals with the Teamsters pension fund, routinely bribing state and local politicians, and greasing the palms of everyone from valet attendants to bank presidents to ensure that you always have someone on your side when things get tight.

No one is tighter with Ace than Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a hot-headed firecracker who acts out on each whim that passes through his superego-deficient frontal lobes. Someone calls you a faggot? Hit him with a telephone receiver. Tells you to shove it up your ass? Stab him in the throat. And God forbid you're a bookie and Nicky places a bet with you, because He Never Loses. Nicky has his own rules, and because he's a "made man"--a favorite son of the Mafia--his rules are as good as law.

Casino is Scorsese's breathless, dizzying version of the true story of Ace, Nicky, and Ace's blowsy wife Ginger (Sharon Stone), who, if you believe this movie, ran Las Vegas--and ran it into the ground--in the 1970s. A world-champion bookie, Ace is charged with managing the Tangiers casino, and it turns from a run-of-the-mill gambling parlor to the top betting joint in town. With a rap sheet five inches thick, Ace shouldn't be permitted to run a Dairy Queen, but in the magical bureaucracy that is "politics to the highest bidder," a numbskull front man (Kevin Pollack) gives the place an air of legitimacy while the crooks take care of business. Ace falls in love with Ginger, a prostitute-turned-kept woman who feeds off C-notes the way buzzards feed off rotting carcasses. Their relationship--and the illegal, behind-the-closed-door intrigue that permeates their lives--is the grist for this, Scorsese's most sweeping, brutally ambitious gangster film to date.

Who but Scorsese could keep making films with the likes of De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis and Robin Williams and still hog the lion's share of praise? At just under three hours, Casino is simply too vast to be anything other than a director's movie: from the narration that opens the film (and never abates) to the constant rock oldies soundtrack to the vertiginous, mystifyingly fluent camerawork, no single acting persona could occupy the screen the way Scorsese's personality does. His flashy, inimitable command of the outer reaches of film's potential--its capacity to entertain, inspire, and frighten--is conclusive evidence that he is the greatest film stylist of the last two decades. Here's a man with no compunction about inserting slow motion in the middle of scenes, freeze-framing characters in mid-sentence, or giving us a nostril's point-of-view of cocaine snorting. (Cinematographer Robert Richardson's omnipresent shafts of stark white light give the film an especially ghostly, woozy optical resonance.) There's nothing Scorsese won't do if it works (or if he can make it work), making Casino one of the most visually arresting pictures of the year.

But it also has his other trademarks: passion, energy, black comedy. Like GoodFellas before, I expect most people will walk out remembering how violent this film is, and there's no denying it has scenes of pure brutality. Scorsese doesn't traffic in the fake, splashy violence of most Hollywood films, but goes for the claustrophobic uneasiness of genuine savagery: when Nicky is asked to squeeze the name of an accomplice out of a hit man, he first turns him into a pulpy mess before crushing his head in a vise grip. And while you might not think Scorsese and co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi could ever make scenes like this even remotely funny, the script somehow manages to insert gallows humor at the most unsettling moments. Unlike the sombre Godfather films, Casino is rompish and, with the gear shift hardly showing, eerie.

No moment better captures the spooky surreality as disturbingly as when Ginger, on the run from her marriage to Ace, starts sniffing cocaine in front of her six-year-old daughter. At the screening I attended, uncomfortable titters were mixed in with gasps of dread from the audience. How, after all, can we judge such conduct? These are the inhabitants of paradise, the chosen few for whom conventional rules of morality do not apply, where cursing in front of your mama is unforgivable, but murder is just part of doing business.

Casino paints a stage as otherworldly as the nightmarish hell where Seven is set, but one not as bleak. In this domain, beautiful dancing girls occupy the same space as brain-splattered alleys, and the good life is there for the living--and, ultimately, the relinquishing. In the vein of classical Greek tragedy, Casino is about the hubris of man, the fatal flaws that allow him to fall, like Satan, from his lofty perch and lose paradise for no reason other than his own ego. Each of the principal characters suffers from such flaws. For Nicky, it is the corrupting influence of unchecked authority that lets him rob from much more powerful men without recognizing the consequences of his actions. Pesci played virtually the same part before in GoodFellas, as the short-tempered fanatic whose outburst finally cost him his life. It would be easy to say Pesci is breezing through the same part again, but it's not that simple with him. Nicky, with his nasal, Midwestern twang, is completely individual, and Pesci's performance here is as fresh and eye-catching as it was five years ago.

Ginger's two most obvious weaknesses (money and drugs) are merely symptoms of her more debilitating neediness, and Stone manages to pave new ground with this, the best role of her career. Although Ginger fades into a drunken stupor midway through the film, what precedes that (her efforts at charm and coy desperation), and then what follows (a boozy hardness, full of shrill physicality), make up for any soft parts in the middle. When Ace accuses Ginger of being manipulative by saying, "You're a good actress, you know that?" you find yourself nodding in agreement. After years as a mere bombshell, Stone picks up the gauntlet and shows herself up to the demands of real acting.

The film, though, revolves around Ace and his fault: his blind love for Ginger and loyalty to Nicky. Ace isn't stupid--he knows Nicky's friendship is a liability, and Ginger is dangerously unstable--but his devotion is as deep as his sense of personal honor will allow. Ace actually seems like a pretty upright guy; he's never shown killing anyone himself, and his tolerance of the rules is admirable. De Niro has sidled into his maturity with a seamless ribbon of characterizations; the precarious instability of Travis Bickle has been replaced by the considered saneness of Ace Rothstein. His gangster archetypes, from Don Corleone to Al Capone, have a vibrancy and spirit unmatched by almost any actor of his generation, and it's a delight watching him tackle another one.

Still, it's the perversities of Casino--both subtle and overt--that are among its chief joys. You can't help but laugh at the sly, witty way Scorsese casts every conflict. (When Ginger continually rams her sportscar into Ace's sedan, there's no mistaking where your loyalties should lie--with the Cadillac, not the Mercedes. Ginger is in the wrong, at least in part, because she doesn't buy American.) Without going to great effort to glamorize their lives, you realize that Scorsese takes wicked enjoyment out of the excitement inherent in the very venality of his characters.

When the fall comes (as it must), the mob finally loses control over Vegas as a moneymaking operation, and corporate America takes over. As he did with the scenes of dull suburbia at the end of GoodFellas, Scorsese can't resist the chance to poke fun at the homogenization of American society. To him--and Ace and Nicky and everyone else in sight in Casino--the banal phalanx of black-sock-and-sandal wearing retirees, descending upon The Strip like a geriatric plague of poker-playing locusts, is more disturbing, more terrifying than any car bomb--it is hell itself. Casino may not intend to glorify viciousness, but with its cheeky ambivalence and thought-provoking (but cleverly masked) messages, it leaves plenty of room to wonder whether Lucifer was right.

Casino. Universal. Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci. Wriiten by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Opens November 22.

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