Movies set in luminescent casinos conjure up evocative mental images of dark rooms filled with blackjack tables, roulette wheels and rolls of the dice. Just think of the Ocean’s franchise, the Edward Norton and Matt Damon-starring Rounders or – of course – Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
Gambling movies can be like sports movies in the sense that it can be hard to convey on screen the sheer thrill of the game or give a sense of the rules in most cases – but they’re not all like that. Here are a few that stand out for unique reasons of their own. While there’s a strong possibility that you may have heard of at least some of these films, it’s likely you haven’t seen all of them. So, here’s an introduction for the uninitiated.
A mentor movie, Hard Eight tells the story of John, played here by John C. Reilly, who, while sulking outside a diner trying to figure out how he’s supposed to pay for his dying mother’s funeral, is befriended by Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a gambler in his 60s. Spotting an opportunity to get back in on some good old casino action, Sydney takes John under his wing and shows him how to gamble successfully in order to raise the much needed funds. In his journey from down on his luck loser to just down on his luck, John picks up further members of his entourage, Clementine, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow and security worker friend, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). A cocktail waitress by day and prostitute by night, Clementine and John get married. The movie is an excellent character study that, rightfully, leaves out half of the character’s back story. And believe us, there is a back story, including just why Sydney was so keen to help young John in the first place.
Another of life’s losers Bernie Lootz, excellently played by William H. Macy, is in a bit of a funk when we meet him. He lives in squalor in a rundown Vegas motel, hasn’t had sex for as long as he can remember, and has a busted kneecap courtesy of Alec Baldwin’s Shangri-La casino boss Shelly Kaplow, to whom he still owes a shit load of gambling debts. On the upside, after years of hard work, that debt is nearly paid off when a curveball is thrown poor old desperate Bernie’s way in the shape of Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello). Things are looking up for Bernie, his luck is improving, he’s scoring with the ladies and, with the debt paid up, he’s all set to leave town. You guessed it though, Shelly has set up Lootz and Natalie, who has secretly fallen in love with her mark, is a plant to keep the Cooler in town and earning. Further complications arise when ghosts from Lootz’s past emerge, in the shape of an ex-wife and estranged son which intertwine nicely with Shelley’s resistance to a casino modernisation. This film doesn’t really spring any surprises but it doesn’t need to. The characters are well-written and equally well-portrayed by an excellent all-star cast on top of their game.
Set back in the 1970s but filmed and released in the mid-90s, Martin Scorsese’s Casino tells the tale of mafia mate Sam “Ace” Rothstein, played here by Robert De Niro, who, along with childhood friend and one-part psychopath, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), is sent to run the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas on behalf of the mob. True to form, Nicky’s violent temper soon sees himself banned from all the casinos in town, including the Tangiers, and he embarks on a career of thievery, while Rothstein gets married to high class prostitute and part time junkie, Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone). Other sub plots include an FBI wiretap, Ginger’s remaining loyalty to her ex, a pimp and lowlife, Lester Diamond, played by real life poker player James Woods, Nicky’s increasingly erratic behaviour and affair with Ginger and Ace in the middle trying to run the casino, while penning in his wife and “friend”, and taking on the Nevada yocals, who have, by this point, taken away his gaming licence. Eventually the feds move in, Ginger leaves but doesn’t get very far, Nicky sleeps with the sweetcorn and Ace catches fire, without giving too much away. This film is a classic Scorsese and natural blood brother to Goodfellas, with much of the same cast recalled.
Wannabe writer Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) takes a job in a London casino for a bit of side cash only to find a natural affinity with the game. He makes friends with fellow croupiers who he knows for certain are cheating the house, he himself cheats on his girlfriend by sleeping with another croupier and gradually falls victim to the dark side. Eventually, he participates in a planned robbery at the casino which doesn’t go according to plan, leaving Jack beaten. In another down turn of luck, his girlfriend is the victim of a hit and run but, on the plus side, he finally has a story to tell and a book, based on himself, is published. There’s a further twist at the end, but will let you see that for yourselves. The film is one of the more realistic portrayals of a casino there has been and, strong as the plot is, it’s secondary to the characters and a study of the industry’s dark side.
English professor and degenerate gambler, Axel Freed has built up a huge gambling debt that threatens his life and relationships. Luckily for Freed, his mother is a wealthy businesswoman. Unluckily for Freed, his gambling addiction has consumed his life and now, having borrowed the much needed funds from his mother, neglects to pay off his debt and instead heads to Vegas where he blows the lot on basketball bets. In a last chance to avoid a beating and pay back the money, he persuades a student, who is also a superb baseball player, into throwing the game on which Freed has, of course, placed a bet. In doing so, he wins and pays his creditor at last before heading into a bad neighbourhood where now its him dishing out the beating, this time to a pimp whose prostitute slashes him across the face. A film that follows the life of an addict, it was so good that there has been a modern retelling of the story, this time with Mark Wahlberg in the title role and John Goodman as the gangster bookie.