While 'Mean Streets' is considered one of the 1970's grittiest classics, and 'GoodFellas' is seen as above reproach as one of the greatest mob movies ever made next to 'The Godfather' series, 'Casino' somehow remains underrated. Sure, any viewer familiar with Scorsese's oeuvre may experience a bit of deja vu, but the freshness of the setting and a newfound infusion of sexual intrigue help offset any stale residue let by 'Casino's borrowed parts.
Because the story's effectiveness absolutely depends on where the characters take us (or, rather, how far they will plummet in debasing themselves), I won't describe too much of the plot beyond the set up. It's 1973 in Las Vegas, a time long before Celine Dion's arrival signaled the city's Disney-fication. Instead, Vegas is a city glittering with greed and smudged with the dirty fingerprints of mob corruption. It's also a hell that welcomes with open arms two rising casino kingpins -- a duo of common thugs that in any other city would be eaten for breakfast by Don Corleone. Lifelong friends Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) have just switched turf to Las Vegas to make their mark and live the high-life. Crime's answer to Ying and Yang (if the mob mentality had such spiritual dimensions), Ace becomes the smooth operator of quasi-legit Tangiers casino, while Nicky takes on the self-appointed role of circus strongman, shaking down the locals when it's time to pay up. But in Scorsese's world everyone has a fatal flaw, and for Ace and Nicky, it will be love -- or for the more cynical, plain old lustful obsession. Never trust a conniving, backstabbing call girl named Ginger McKenna, especially if she looks like Sharon Stone. As the greed, passions and deceptions chip away at Ace and Nicky's boyhood bonds, their dreams threaten to collapse like a house of cards.
They say the odds are never in your favor in Vegas, so one can forgive Scorsese for stacking his deck. I'll admit that in 'Casino' he does borrow, or at least mirror, the visual fireworks that seemed so fresh in 'GoodFellas.' It doesn't help comparisons that Nicholas Pileggi wrote the scripts for both movies. Each is slick, fast-paced, powered by a period soundtrack of classic tunes and filled with enough bravura camera moves for ten other movies. Yet I remain in the minority of viewers who actually prefer 'Casino' over its more acclaimed cinematic soul brother. Perhaps it's because, unlike 'GoodFellas,' which focused solely on the rise and fall of Henry Hill, here the spiritual corruption is spread equally between Ace and Nicky. And Stone, in a career high as Ginger, proves that she's an even better actress when her legs are crossed. Ginger is the powderkeg that ignites a partnership already on the brink of exploding, which (for my taste) makes 'Casino' a lot more fun and narratively twisty and melodramatic in its excesses than any previous Scorsese flick. How can you not love a movie that features a point-of-view shot through a cocaine straw? And the only thing more fun than watching one mobster in 'GoodFellas' get his is watching two screw each other over for a hooker and a percentage point. It's also nice to see Scorsese spicing up his usual boys club with Stone, who again so "sizzles" up the screen that for once the back-of-the-box proclamation isn't mere hyperbole.
Unfortunately, I still have some problems with Scorsese's penchant for onscreen violence. I know, I know, I sound like Michael Medved. Even 'Casino's now-infamous "vice torture" scene notwithstanding, all the bloodletting felt gratuitous long ago. Rather than gingerly applied a la ''The Godfather' to add the proper Grand Guignol-meets-Italian Opera bravura, or -- as Scorsese himself did so effectively in 'Taxi Driver' --- confining it to a single scene of orgiastic release as a legitimate storytelling device, in 'Casino' there seems to be an almost gleeful preoccupation with brutality that I find juvenile (an indulgence that also mars 'GoodFellas' and 'Gangs of New York'). And as great a pair as De Niro and Pesci make onscreen (what ever happened to the latter's career, anyway?), even they seem to overdo the viciousness, less out of necessity than look-at-me-I'm-a-tough-guy grandstanding. We know Pesci's Nicky is as fragile as he is psychopathic, and I understood how his self-possession led to his violent outbursts -- I just didn't need to see every one of them. But even discounting the moments of 'Casino' that I couldn't watch because I was cowering behind my fingertips, I enjoyed the hell out of the rest of it.
In my original review of the HD DVD of 'Casino,' I raved about the transfer's quality. I thought Universal did a splendid job bringing this now-thirteen year-old film to high-def, so I'm pleased that the studio has provided the same source yet again for this Blu-ray, here in a 1080p/VC-1 re-encode. It looks great.
The film got a nice restoration for standard-def DVD back in 2007, that master serves as the basis for the high-def version. The image looks glittery and glamorous, thanks both to the high-resolution and Robert Richardson's sterling cinematography. Blacks and strong contrast give the picture real snap, crackle and pop -- I loved watching Scorsese's camera march through the casino floor like that little kid on his big wheel in Kubrick's 'The Shining.' Even minute details (such as dollar amounts on the top of a slot machine or the ugly bow tie on a Blackjack dealer) were sharp and distinct. And yes, during that "the muffin has too many blueberries" scene, you can count each one. Colors are excellent, with rich hues solid and free of noise. Fleshtones are also spot-on, with Sharon Stone never looking more orange and lovely. Sure, I could complain -- some scenes are a bit overly-contrasted with bloomy whites, and shadow delineation can suffer ever-so-slightly due to crushed blacks. But this is minor stuff -- in terms of picture quality, 'Casino' hits the jackpot on Blu-ray.
Because he's considered such a visual stylist, it's often overlooked how expertly Martin Scorsese also assembles the soundtracks to his films. More than just the composer he selects or the "songtracks" he creates, the way Scorsese combines and balances the various sonic elements is truly craftsman-like. Though it may not be overpowering like a big action flick, 'Casino' is so finely-attuned it is worth considering as demo material for those who appreciate subtlety over bombast in their home theater soundtracks.
Universal has gone one-better than the HD DVD's Dolby Digital-Plus track and given us a full-blown English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track. The upgrade is a fair one. I was surprised at how full-bodied and spacious dynamics were the last time around, but here the high-end is a tad brighter and mid-range fuller. The film particularly comes alive in the casino scenes, from the clear and sparkly highs (no distortion or tinniness here) to the deep low bass. Surround activity remains flush with sustained ambiance, which is slightly more robust on the DTS-MA. Discrete sounds are frequently directed to individual speakers with seamless pans, and great use of songs helps to create a strong 360-degree soundfield. Quieter moments in the film still feel front-directed, but there remains subtle use of atmosphere which is wonderfully well-modulated and subtle. Dialogue is also perfectly balanced in the mix. This isn't a big-budget action movie, but 'Casino' still delivers audio that is perfectly suited to the material.
Here we go again. Per its recent trend, Universal has cut up much of the making-of material found on the HD DVD of 'Casino' and repurposed it as a Blu-ray-exclusive picture-in-picture commentary. This time, the featurettes found on the very spiffy anniversary DVD re-issue of 'Casino' are now ported over to the exclusive section below, which leaves the standard suite of extras feeling a bit undernourished by comparison. However, Universal has included a pair of TV specials that were left off of the HD DVD, so in the end, the Blu-ray still offers a bit more. (All video materials are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only with English, French and Spanish subtitle options.)
'Casino' may be my favorite Martin Scorsese "mob movie," even though the general consensus favors 'GoodFellas' and/or 'Mean Streets.' Regardless, any serious student of the filmmaker has to see this one, and the excellent performances really seal the deal. This fresh Blu-ray version is the equal to the previous HD DVD in terms of video, and even better with audio thanks to the inclusion of a high-res track. I'm still not entirely sold on Universal's obsession with repackaging the old extras as cobbled-together picture-in-picture exclusives, but at least the content is here in some form. Bottom line, 'Casino' on Blu-ray is well recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.