Top 3 Casino-Related Films of All Time
Hailing from Ireland, I am no stranger to the world of gambling. While not an avid gambler myself, there are plenty of buildings dedicated to bookmakers spread throughout the country, where patrons can bet on anything from horses, to soccer, or even who is next to get the (possibly literal) axe on Game of Thrones. In Canada, the noticeable lack of bookmakers leads most people to choose online casino gaming…though there are more than a few casinos. And whether you’re like me, gambling in the odd poker game with friends, or a bona fide Bond at the tables (more on him later), there is no denying that there have been some great films made in or around casinos. So without further ado, here is my dice-roll at the top 3 casino-related films of all time.
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is certainly an unforgettable film…which could be meant in the best or worst way, depending on who you talk to. To elaborate and call the film divisive would be more than just a mild understatement. This mostly owes to the fact that the neither director Terry Gilliam, nor his characters, do things in half measures here, making for one of the most popular and recognisable cult films in the last 20 years.
Its two lead characters, journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer, who is simply known as Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), embark on what should be a work-related trip to Las Vegas, but instead turns into a trip of a very different, drug-related nature. In fact, the duo spend the majority of the film in mind-altered states, and as a consequence some viewers can feel lost in its anarchic drug-fueled haze.
But it is worth noting that Gilliam had a very specific vision for this film; one where gambling is not the main focus, or at least not in the traditional sense of the word. With each drug the men take, they are gambling with consequence, with forces that are very much out of their control. Sound familiar? This is why Vegas serves as the perfect backdrop for its themes on the lingering sense of emptiness left by the unfulfilled promises of the psychedelic ‘60s…well, that and the fact that Vegas would just be the worst place to go tripping!
- Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
While several Bond films in the past have depicted the suave spy partaking in one his favourite vices (and I don’t mean women or shaken martinis), Casino Royale is undoubtedly the series’ benchmark portrayal of Bond’s famed poker talents.
Throughout the decades, Bond has been depicted as an incredibly perceptive character. It only makes sense, then, that his uncanny ability to read people be used (or manipulated) as a driving force for the film’s major plot, as he attempts to bankrupt a terrorist financier, by the name of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), in a high-stakes game of poker.
It is a tough one to whittle down, but I think it would be fair to say that Casino Royale might just be my favourite Bond film. To begin with, the studio wisely decided to bring back Martin Campbell, who had directed Pierce Brosnan in his 1995 Bond debut, GoldenEye. This time around though, Daniel Craig is the newcomer, and in spite of the unwarranted controversy thrown at him following his casting, the actor silenced critics with what many call the greatest iteration of Bond (or that he would at least go toe-to-toe with Sean Connery).
Campbell’s direction, the screenplay, and Craig’s brilliant performance result in in a fresh new take on the Bond mythos, which sadly began to feel stale by the end of Brosnan’s tenure in the role (not that it was the actor’s fault). It also helps that the ever-wonderful Mads Mikkelsen brings an unnervingly tense presence to the screen, cementing his own status as one of the more compelling Bond villains in the series’ extensive rogues’ gallery.
Performances aside, this is a superb action/espionage film, with blistering action and intriguing plot developments, rarely conceding to convention, and certainly never taking its foot off that gas pedal, barrel-roll and all!
- Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)
It might seem a little too on the nose to be naming Casino the best casino-related film of all time; almost like naming The Godfather the best godfather-related film of all time, or Taxi Driver the best…you probably get the point. But there is good reason for the film’s top position in this list, and it starts with Scorsese being one of the best film openers in the history of cinema.
Most people would feel bogged down by overt exposition in a film, especially when its goes on for well over a half hour like in Casino, but thankfully good ol’ Marty was the one behind the camera. Scorsese has the ability to combine introductory exposition with compelling imagery, marrying the two in an intoxicating whirlwind of crime and intrigue. I was totally absorbed by the way that Scorsese used the introduction to not just enlighten us in the workings of the casino business (when the mob is behind it), but also introduce us to his multifaceted lead characters Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who are sent over to Las Vegas by the mob to run a casino on the strip for them. Of course, in typical Scorsese fashion, things eventually start to go sideways, and as their dreams start to drop one by one, so do the bodies.
As anybody familiar with Scorsese’s films would recognise quick enough, Casino certainly shares similarities with its predecessor Goodfellas, regarding not just its mobster subject matter, but also the characters the leads play. De Niro’s Sam is a calm and collected, always calculating his moves, while Pesci’s Nicky is a psychotic loose cannon. But here it is not so clear-cut, with Scorsese showing more understanding for character work than he had in his previous mobster films.
While Goodfellas is still the better film overall, but the characters are offered subtle nuances that make them all the more human. For instance, Nicky, insane as he is, is not without his principles. I loved watching him help out a gambling addict who needs money for his family, while being an unfailingly loving and caring father to his son. It added that much more depth to his already vibrant character, and the great Joe Pesci makes us believe every beat.
It is a testament To Scorsese’s abilities that he is able to make a 3-hour long epic on the rise and fall of the American Dream in a city as superficial as Las Vegas, and still find some shred of humanity at the heart of his characters, whatever their actions. It is an immensely difficult balance to pull, and the main reason why it is my number 1 pick for the greatest casino-related film of all time.