Dice with death

CASINO Martin Scorsese (18); The template is GoodFellas but the violence here is played with sick relish.
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The Independent Culture
Crime isn't a new subject for Martin Scorsese: Mean Streets was about how young people drift into it, GoodFellas was about someone brought up to crime struggling desperately to find a way out. His new film, Casino, shares a source with GoodFellas (both from books by Nicholas Pileggi), not to mention themes and performers, but concentrates on unredeemable characters. Casino has sociological and even psychological interest - it shows us the details of lives that are hard to imagine - but does nothing to justify its epic length (three hours) and baroque opening music (Bach chorale). In human terms this is neither a big nor a tragic story, and if GoodFellas could be gruelling, Casino tends instead to be wearying.

Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is sent to Las Vegas in 1973 to run a casino. His employers are gangsters, but it's a relatively legit job. Not that his methods are exactly orthodox: when he spots a cheat, he sends in a goon with a cattle prod, who discreetly tickles the sinner's armpit with that delicate instrument. As the man slumps, stunned, Sam shouts that a player has had a heart attack and has him carried away for treatment - treatment that involves smashing his hand with a hammer.

It's only compared to Nicky (Joe Pesci) that Sam seems like a viable guy. Nicky will stab someone with a pen if that's the only sharp thing he can reach, and squeezes information out of people with the help of a vice large enough to take a head. In earlier Scorsese films, violence was approached with both fear and excitement; here the underlying impulse seems to be sick relish. It doesn't seem too much to ask, in exchange for three hours of our lives, to be offered an emotion less tainted than the pleasure of watching nasty people fall foul of one another.

Sharon Stone plays Ginger, whom Sam marries in a moment of weakness and trusts with the key to his $2m special reserve ransom fund. Ginger doesn't pretend to be in love with him when he proposes, and De Niro has a good moment of brushing imaginary fluff from the lapels, filling the eyes with tears, before he says the silly thing that people say: love will come. Love will come from what we have.

What they have, of course, is his money. Stone fully justifies her casting, but this isn't a juicy role. She has a good scene with her toddler daughter, playing together with museum-quality jewellery in a bank vault, but it lasts only seconds. Stone gets to wear lots of nice clothes (while De Niro's character commits continuous fashion suicide) but has none of the trashy power she is granted in less respectable movies. What's in it for her?

There aren't many less lazy jobs than making a film. So where does the energy come from to make a lazy film like Casino? Scorsese's trademark is dynamism, but the governing principle of the film is repetition, and the template is so clearly GoodFellas. We've seen these things before: a criminal couple caught in a world they can't escape, and coming to hate each other; Joe Pesci as a psychopath; two voice-overs telling the story (though in Casino, the two voices compete from the start, and there's no voice for the woman); and a Jew among Italians - although in GoodFellas this was the heroine, and the clash of cultures was strongly observed, rather than mentioned in passing.

In GoodFellas there was a tour de force steadicam shot, following the hero and the heroine on their first date, down through the guts of the building to emerge in a nightclub at a miraculously favoured table. It showed how corruption feels, as an experience. In Casino there is a similar bravura shot following a man who enters the holy of holys - the casino's cash-counting room - and fills a suitcase with money while everyone looks away. It shows how corruption works, as a mechanism.

In Mean Streets, Scorsese practically invented the rock soundtrack for his generation. Here there is an archive of classic songs, leaning heavily toward the Rolling Stones, but every choice is flailing semaphore. Before Ginger appears, we hear "Satisfaction" and "Compared to What" - Sam isn't happy, but doesn't know what he's looking for. When he first sees her, a voice sings "You're the One". Then it's Jagger's voice singing, "What's different about her? I don't really know." The song is "Heart of Stone." Next it's "Love is the Drug".

It would be almost a relief to think that Casino was a cynical exercise, but cynicism has more vigour. Stylistically, too, the film is restrained rather than self-parodic. There are some familiar, lovely gimmicks: extreme close-ups in slow-motion of a flashbulb going off, or a die tumbling, or cocaine being snorkelled in a spiral up a straw. The only actual innovation is a matter of lighting and filters: a number of sequences are treated so that one face or body - usually Sharon Stone's - shines out, like an art film equivalent of the enhanced area of a security video. Minor satisfactions like this are a part of the experience of watching Casino, but rather on the level of Sam's business philosophy, as displayed by a poster on his office wall: a small yes beside an enormous no.

When he made GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese knew that a long film needs an extra burst of energy just before the end. Casino is longer, but Scorsese seems to have forgotten all about the dynamics of pleasing an audience. What we are left with is Sam lamenting that Vegas these days is like Disneyland. It's all corporations. There's no style. This scene may be intended to have an awful pathos, like the scenes of La Motta fat and nostalgic in Raging Bull. Still, if Disneyland means a haven from cattle prods and cranial vices, Disneyland sounds good.

n On release from tomorrow