The trouble with wise guys...

Martin Scorsese's doing the Mob again. Daniel Jeffreys thinks he's overdoing them

"My desire as a director," explains Martin Scorsese, "is to provoke the audience." Hollywood's most respected film-maker is speaking about his new film, Casino, in a New York hotel. He has been joined by the stars of the film - Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. The atmosphere is edgy. In weekend screenings of themovie, Scorsese seems to have failed his own test. The audience is more restive than provoked, complaining out loud that the film is too long and covers old ground.

Scorsese has taken a risk with Casino. It's a story about the Mob, so it invites comparison with the brilliant Goodfellas, and very few people thought that movie could use a 30-minute trim. The film also rides entirely on its story-line. There are no sympathetic characters here. De Niro, Pesci and Stone are all cut from hard steel. It's hard to care about what happens to any of them.

Casino is set in Las Vegas, the year is 1973. Hustling bookie, Sam "Ace" Rothstein, has been hand-picked by the Mid-west Mafia to run its casinos, all built with money from the corrupt Teamsters Union. As Rothstein makes it big, his best friend arrives to carve out a piece of the action, using brute force.

Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is an explosive study in heartless violence. He kills before dinner but still has a good appetite, and his idea of love is shoving a woman's head in his lap. Pesci is good, but then he rehearsed the role in Goodfellas and won an Oscar. Scorsese's direction keeps Pesci to that standard but adds nothing new, even when Pesci hits the sack with Stone, who plays Ginger McKenna, Rothstein's wife.

This unlikely match takes place as Rothstein and Santoro are on the verge of war, a conflict that turned Las Vegas upside down. For Scorsese, that was the central appeal of a screenplay which is based on real life, the story of Frank Rosenthal and Anthony Spilotro. "It's the oldest tragedy in the world," explains Scorsese. "People doing themselves in by their own pride and losing paradise. If they handled it right, they would still be here."

Scorsese should know that's nonsense. He's romanticising the Mob and the film suffers for it; the Las Vegas Mafia were not like cowboys of the old West, although Scorsese likes to pretend they are. "It's like the end of the Wild West," he says.

Scorsese's direction aims to recreate Seventies Las Vegas in faithful detail. Laid against the MTV visual styles of Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers, Casino's high realism seems old-fashioned. The result is an absence of irony. Where the movie succeeds as a reproduction, it fails as drama.

So what about Sharon Stone in this company? Hollywood insiders say she was not the first choice to play McKenna and Stone admits she was nervous. "I started out in a state of abject terror. I could barely speak," says Stone - although for the Basic Instinct star this was a dream realised. "When I first worked with an acting teacher, I said my ambition was to work with Robert De Niro," gushes Stone. "To do that with Martin Scorsese as well, it was just amazing."

Stone regards Casino as a potential turning point in her career. "My previous roles have been too shallow," she says. "I knew I had abilities that I hadn't yet had the chance to demonstrate." I am curious about that. I ask her what those abilities are and how Scorsese forced them to surface. "That's hard to describe," she says. "Working with Marty is such an organic experience." Like an afternoon in the potting shed, maybe?

The purpose of Stone's character is to drive De Niro's Rothstein crazy. She does this by getting drunk, going down on Nicky Santoro, screaming a lot and smashing up his car. Stone compares her performance to that of Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is a stretch.

When De Niro finally tires of her antics and throws her out, we're surprised he was restrained for so long. This is not an example of the realism found in the rest of the movie, which is based on the novel Casino by Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy, the book that inspired Goodfellas. Pileggi's Rosenthal beats Geri McGee on a regular basis. In the great American tradition of petty hoods, Rosenthal breaks his wife's ribs and still expects blow- jobs. That's not how they scripted Rothstein for the movie.

Pileggi wrote the screenplay with Scorsese and says the decision to play down the spousal abuse was deliberate. "We didn't feel we needed to show all the beatings to prove it was a violent relationship," says Pileggi. But no beatings? In a movie where Pesci cracks a guy's skull in an industrial vice until his brains and eyeballs pop out? Do we need to see that kind of torture to know the Mafia are violent people?

One suspects other motives - that a wife-beating Mafia king is harder to romanticise, and that's what Scorsese wanted to do with Rothstein and this period of American history. For a start, Scorsese is actually nostalgic for the Seventies and its music. Casino is full of the decade's hits and fashions, making the Mafia antics seem jaunty. "What these guys do is morally wrong, but the film doesn't say that," says Scorsese. "These guys are just really working stiffs. They understand that if you cross a certain line it's death. But that's 'business'. In that world, it's normal behaviour. Las Vegas is a different place now, it's somewhere for tourists."

Stone has also bought this line. "Las Vegas has less glamour now. It has become more accessible," she says. "The old style had more charm." Although now there are fewer midnight burials in the desert.

The film could still be outstanding if the relationship between De Niro and Pesci was powerful enough. Scorsese is famous for making his actors improvise before the cameras roll. Both De Niro and Pesci say this is the best experience their profession can give. "It's very creative and collaborative between the three of us," says Pesci. "Working with Rob is like breathing in and out, and Marty is probably the best director I've ever worked with."

Even so, the De Niro/ Pesci interaction only catches fire on two occasions. For the rest of the time it's hard to imagine they were ever friends. The excessive use of voice-overs doesn't help. Most of the time Rothstein and Santoro just seem like the natural enemies they were in real life.

With these stars and this director, Casino has built up large expectations, but film-making does not stand still. Much has changed in this genre since Goodfellas, and audiences look for more than the painstaking recreation of period. Here Scorsese proves again that nobody can capture a moment in time so well, but in this case one wonders why he bothers. Casino is Seventies Las Vegas, but so what?

Scorsese has described this project as "operatic" and the opening sequence, which is wonderful, is almost enough to justify the claim. Elsewhere Casino gets trapped in its own assumptions and Scorsese's realism fails him. There's too much gloss, and the spiritual seediness of his characters is not fully expressed until the very end - which takes too long to arrive.

n 'Casino' is premiered at the London Film Festival on Sunday, 7pm. Booking: 0171-928 3232

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