After the smash hit of Goodfellas, a few years later Martin Scorsese signed off on Casino, a Vegas-set mafia epic from his regular screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. Featuring a star turn by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci reuniting for the third time, and based on a true story, Casino was an important movie at a pivotal moment for organized crime.
Like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls a few years earlier, the movie captures the feel of late-’90s Las Vegas with a vivid evocation of its seedy underbelly. But unlike the glossy pap of Pauly Shore’s Showgirls, the movie doesn’t just fetishize its subject, it exposes it. The movie’s opening sequence, with its deliberate echoes of the Copacabana interlude in Goodfellas and a prowling Steadicam gliding into the money counting room at Tangiers, is a blunt reminder of how corrupt the city’s gambling industry really was.
Casino is also a lesson in how casinos manipulate customers to keep them playing. The smell of scented oils wafts throughout the rooms, and the flashing lights and joyful sound of slot machines evoke a manufactured euphoria. Curving paths draw players in, away from the exit and toward the glitziest gaming areas. And the sunk cost fallacy — the tendency to follow a losing bet with an even bigger one — is reinforced by the fact that casinos offer free meals, hotel stays and other inducements to big bettors.
In the end, however, the movie is less a celebration of the old days than it is a cynical portrait of the new ones. At the end, as Ace watches his former stomping grounds be reupholsterized and transformed into a family-friendly theme park, he laments that “the town will never be the same.”