Martin Scorsese's 'Casino' Sizzles With Energy but Lacks Originality

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'CASINO'' hits the screen with dazzling credentials. It's directed by Martin Scorsese, regarded by many as the most gifted American filmmaker of his generation. He wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Pileggi, who also inspired ''GoodFellas,'' one of Scorsese's most inventive pictures.

And as they used to say in Hollywood, whatta cast! Robert De Niro continues the long Scorsese partnership that ranges from ''Mean Streets'' and ''Taxi Driver'' through ''GoodFellas'' and beyond. Sharon Stone gives her most fully realized screen performance to date. Joe Pesci revives the lowdown intensity that makes him unique among today's actors. Smaller roles are filled to perfection by talents as different as Alan King, James Woods, and the inimitable Don Rickles.

It would be regrettable if all these gifted folks poured their abilities into a picture that promoted gambling, especially in the current American climate, when governments and criminals seem equally eager to snatch the money of people who haven't learned the odds are always against them. ''Casino'' fills the screen with glitz-and-glitter gambling joints, but the story is full of warnings about who profits from them - namely, the shady characters who set them up for precisely that purpose - and if you miss the point, De Niro's narration makes it perfectly plain that only insiders stand a chance of avoiding empty pockets in the end.

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De Niro's character also illustrates this lesson. His name is Sam ''Ace'' Rothstein, and he's the newly installed chief of a major Las Vegas casino. Since it's unlikely his checkered past would allow him to obtain a license, he runs the place in secret, publicly presenting himself as a second-rank administrator. The film chronicles his rise to power, his marriage to a beautiful but deeply troubled drug abuser, and his relationships with underworld types like Lester Diamond, his wife's former lover, and Nicky Santoro, a childhood friend with a penchant for dangerous behavior.

As pure filmmaking, ''Casino'' is as brilliant as anything Scorsese has done in years. His camera swoops, pans, glides, cuts, and Steadicams its way through immaculately designed sets and atmospherically chosen locations, charging the story with a visual energy that's downright exhilarating at times. Meanwhile the sound track bubbles with golden oldies - many from the '50s, although the story takes place mainly in the '70s - that will have spectators tapping their toes when they aren't busy ducking the graphic violence that punctuates the action.

For all the excitement of its sounds and images, though, the brilliance of ''Casino'' is ultimately as cool and superficial as the jewels one of its crooked characters likes to steal. The episodic story never picks up a full head of steam, and if you've seen the very similar ''GoodFellas'' you'll find more nostalgia than novelty here, especially when Pesci's unstable character is on the screen. Stone's excellent acting is undercut by the fact that her character has little to do but intoxicate herself and stagger around. And no other woman in this male-dominated movie gets to do even that much.

The production values of ''Casino'' are consistently superb, thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson - best known for several Oliver Stone movies - and a list of top-notch technical wizards including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, designer Dante Ferretti, and the team of Elaine and Saul Bass, who designed the eye-enticing credits.

You couldn't ask for more creative or energetic contributions. What you could request, especially from an epic with a three-hour running time, is a more original story with a deeper set of values on its mind.

* ''Casino'' is rated R. It contains explicit violence, sex, substance abuse, and foul language.

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