Scorsese Rolls The Dice

Martin Scobsese's "Casino" is conceived on a grand scale, as a gangster's paradise lost. Paradise was Las Vegas in the 1970s, a Wild West town ruled by the mob, where guys from the street like "Ace" Rothstein (Roberr De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) could reign in gaudy splendor as long as the skim money from the casinos kept flowing back to the mob bosses in Kansas City. In an unholy alliance with the corrupt local politicians and the Teamsters, the mob had Vegas in its fist. But it all came crashing down, the sinners expelled from their gold-leaf Eden, the Mafia casinos replaced by the new corporate-owned, junk-bond-financed pleasure palaces of the '80s and '90s.

Pride goeth before the fall, in the testament according to Scorsese and writer Nicholas Pileggi. Their ambitious epic wants to be both a definitive anthropological chronicle of the inner workings of Mafia-run Vegas and a personal tragedy. In the story of the overreaching Rothstein and Santoro--childhood friends who would end up pitted against each other in a battle to control the town--we're meant to see a fall of Shakespearean proportions. Naturally, there's an Eve in this garden of nouveau-riche delights--the gold-digging, coke-snorting hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone), who marries the casino-running Rothstein and betrays him with the vicious, trigger-happy Santoro.

As anthropology, "Casino" is fascinating. You get an insider's view of the gaming hall: the hierarchy of surveillance; how to detect a blackjack cheat; what you can get for greasing the palm of a parking attendant; how a great bookmaker sets the odds. And as a demonstration of Scorsese's stylistic finesse, it's dazzling. Everything about the production is first class: the camera work, the cutting, the perfect vulgarity of Dante Ferretti's sumptuous sets, and a dead-on selection of source music that includes Dinah Washington, Louis Prima, the Rolling Stones and Georges Delerue's plangent theme from the Godard film "Contempt."

But the human drama at the heart of this movie is stillborn. As hard as Scorsese tries to elevate Ace and Nicky and Ginger into a triangle of mythic dimensions, they remain small and mean; their dreams don't resonate. Scorsese and Pileggi assert their themes, but they haven't found a way to dramatize them. At the start, Scorsese pours Bach's St. Matthew Passion over the sight of Rothstein exploding in a car bombing: but in the three hours he takes to flash back and tell Rothstein's story, he doesn't earn the grandiosity. The mooks in "Mean Streets" were penny ante next to these hoods, but Scorsese got inside their souls, and they mattered to us. In "Goodfellas," written by Pileggi, there was more irony, but you could still feel Scorsese's passionate connection. Here what you feel is emotional distance.

It doesn't help that he's been to this wiseguy well once too often. The sense of discovery, and the shock value, are gone. We know how well Pesci can play a peppy, conscienceless killer, but after his savage turn in "Geodfellas," do we really need an encore? De Niro faces a different problem: "Ace" Rothstein, a former bookie and gambling expert, has the soul of an accountant. For all DeNiro's weight, there's no way he can make this guy a tragic figure, and it seems a little screwy to try. There's not much pathos to be had from his infatuation with the money-grubbing Ginger, when we know from the get-go it can only end in grief. It's a love story with no love in it. Stone--tough, tortured and slinkily manipulative--is terrific. It's not the actors' fault that no one is able to break through the film's gorgeous but chilly surface. You watch "Casino" with respect and appreciation, reveling in its documentary sense of detail. Filled with brilliant journalism, "Casino" leaves you hungry for drama.