There's three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the way I do it.
This line, spoken by Robert De Niro's protagonist Ace Rothstein, isn't part of a defining moment. Ace says it in the middle of a rant over the most profitable machines sitting in the wrong spot. And yet, it surmises Ace's entire being and the nature of Casino's story: this is a film about ego.
Ace Rothstein has ambition. He gets involved with people on both sides of the law. All this gets him in the unofficial position of running the Tangiers Casino. Or, in other words, a lot of power as he builds its revenue while feeding back cuts of the cash to the Chicago Mafia.
While there, he charms the right people. He works side-by-side with his childhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a mob man who attacks first and asks questions later. And he gains the romantic attention of Ginger, a hustler who's equally interested in turning a profit.
But there's something not quite right. Something itching at Ace's feet. He wants more. He wants Ginger to marry him despite her not reciprocating his feelings. He wants things to go his way at the casino, even though it's technically just a front for the Chicago Mafia. He even starts questioning Nicky's methods while pushing back against the authorities with a stake in the illicit infrastructure.
This is what makes Casino stand out. It's not just a mob movie. Like all of Scorsese's gangster flicks, there's much more boiling beneath the surface. And here, Scorsese wants to interrogate the ego through the frame of the American dream.
Ace, Nicky and Ginger all oppose one another. Ace and Nicky are two sides of the same coin, each vying to gain more power over the Las Vegas strip. Ginger plays the two against each other, benefitting from both while slowly spiralling out of control. As these three egos start to clash more and more, the situation explodes (both figuratively and literally).
Scorsese captures all of this brilliantly, setting up the central conflict through heavy narration from Ace and Nicky that paints the internal picture, revealing their intentions and mistrust. The fact that Ginger doesn't narrate proves the point: she's manipulating in the background, fulfilling her own personal (and questionable) motives.
He also uses the setting to an ingenious effect. The flashing lights of the casinos provide all the glitz and glamour that disguises the blood that runs through the cracks of the Nevada desert. Even the cinematography, which looks slightly over-exposed, gives the impression of the casino lifestyle seeping into Ace, Nicky and Ginger's everyday circumstances. It's an obsession for the three of them: representative of money gained, power attained and their souls lost.
Everything comes back to this and it's what makes Casino so spectacular. It's long, epic in scope and has some of the finest stars Hollywood can deliver. Yet, the story is intimate, revealing the dissatisfaction that poisons minds, no matter whom you're dealing with.
It just so happens that Casino does the opposite. Scorsese satisfies again. The world is better when he does it his way.
Casino will be re-released and available for the first time across all digital platforms on 27th February