While the step-up from Blu-ray to 4K UHD is not as easily noticed as the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray (although a worrying number don’t even notice that difference much either), sometimes catalogue titles are released in which the upgrade is clear as day. A truly great 4K release can have amazing detail and grain, giving a wonderfully textured ‘look’ and HDR brings the whole image to life in a way that can often take the breath away.
Such is the case with Martin Scorsese’s Casino– set mostly in the bright lights of Las Vegas the film benefits from HDR in such a way that the film arguably gets a whole new lease of life, and indeed watching this I almost felt like I was watching it for the first time. Its quite a revelation. The wisps of backlit cigarette smoke, the dazzling reflections of light bouncing of surfaces, the bright lights, the neon… the image really pops, and of course that is augmented by the uptick in detail, the texture that is added to everything from fabric in clothes to the plush carpets and furniture, the WCG adding extra verve to the bright colours.
Casino is perhaps understandably going to be forever in the shadow of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a deliberately cooler, rock and roll rollercoaster of a ride than this somewhat darker, more intimate film. I have always had a bit of an issue with Scorsese’s gangster films making their characters more palatable for audiences by making them cool, indeed almost heroes that the audience roots for, relishing in their violence and ill-gotten gains rather than condemning the monsters that they are. Casino re-adjusts that balance somewhat- Robert De Niro’s Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein is always more businessman than gangster, the mob really a means to an end, but Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro is indeed all monster, a mob enforcer who gets seduced by Vegas’ riches and undone by his greed (its never enough, he’s always after more, proving his own worse enemy). Nicky’s final demise remains one of the most brutal and harrowing scenes ever put on film, despite being not as graphic as one might recall. The surprise in the film is the amount of focus it gives Ginger, Sam’s girlfriend and later wife who is always on the edge of self-destruction, played incredibly well by Sharon Stone in what is likely a career-best performance.
De Niro of course was great back then, in retrospect at the height of his career (I’d argue he was on a downward slope ever after) and Pesci himself was never better. Following so soon their performances in Goodfellas, seeing them in the similarly-themed Casino seemed almost lazy casting, as if they were coasting, but in hindsight, from the perspective of 2021 I can see things differently now. Casino was seizing the opportunity of the time with two great actors being at the top of their game: it had to be made then, even if being made in 1995 just five years after Goodfellas, it was doomed to suffer from comparison.
On the surface, with its tight cutting, ever-moving camera and sublime soundtrack of iconic songs accompanying the visuals, the film seems very Goodfellas and this might be why it alienates some fans of that film- its a different kind of film in the guise of that earlier one, like a pretender almost. On its own terms however Casino may be the more accomplished of the two and really, its never looked a good as it does on this 4K UHD, finally having a rather arresting image to supplement its intense storyline.
Casino is a study of how we destroy ourselves, and Vegas seems to be a place that draws people in and exaggerates, intensifies that self-destruction: or at least it was until the mobsters were forced out and it was turned into a Theme Park for adults. I find it somewhat curious that the New York of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is long gone now, the film almost as much historical record as it is drama, its seedy, adult-cinema sin city since turned into a more palatable Disneyland and that’s oddly repeated in how the Vegas of his Casino movie also suffered that same fate. Reality replaced by artifice. Of course Scorsese’s New York of Taxi Driver was the real deal, whereas his Vegas of Casino is a recreation, but its one that looks quite glorious in this 4K edition.