Casinos are often great backdrops for action-packed and dramatic movies since gambling is by nature intense and high risk.

Even though the online casino industry has taken a bit of this experience, visiting a land base casino is still an experience of its own.

Throw in some addiction, mobsters, hustlers, and other shady characters, and there are all the ingredients for an excellent film. With that in mind, here are five of the best casino-themed movies.

Casino (1995)

Not only one of the best casino-based movies ever made but a classic among many masterpieces from legendary director Martin Scorsese, Casino is based on the non-fiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi (who also co-wrote the screenplay for Goodfellas, another Scorsese classic).

Casino tells the story of Sam “Ace” Rothstein (played by Robert De Niro), a Jewish American gambling expert who is entrusted by the Chicago mafia to run their casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. Ace is joined in Vegas by friend and ‘made man’ Nicky Santoro (Pesci) and strikes up a relationship with Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna – a relationship that threatens to tear down the whole operation.

Casino has all the hallmarks of a vintage Scorsese gangster movie – incredible acting, fast-paced, explicit violence, and a story containing many twists and turns. Now nearly 30 years old, Casino has stood the test of time and remains just as good now as it did upon release in 1995.

Rounders (1998)

From the glamour of Vegas to the underground world of high-stakes poker, Rounders has become something of a cult classic. After mixed reviews and moderate box office success upon release, the movie enjoyed a new lease of life following the poker boom the following decade.

Rounders stars Matt Damon as Mike McDermott, a gifted poker player and law student who attempts to leave his gambling life behind after losing his life savings in one hand, only to be dragged back into the murky world by childhood friend Lester ‘Worm’ Murphy (Ed Norton).

Alongside Damon and Norton, Rounders boasts an all-star cast, with John Malkovich as Russian mob boss Teddy ‘KGB’, John Turturro as mentor Joey Knish, Famke Janssen, and Martin Landau.

The Gambler (1974)

Written semi-autobiographically by English college lecturer James Toback, who had battled a gambling addiction, The Gambler was his first screenplay, with lead role Axel Freed (played by James Caan) loosely based on some of his experiences.

Freed is a much-admired and respected college professor whose addiction to gambling outside the classroom soon sends his life into a spiral. After getting in deep with a mafia boss – Hips played by Paul Sorvino – for gambling debts, Freed borrows, steals, and schemes his way into deeper trouble, winning and losing at the table, and helping to fix basketball games in an effort to repay his debts.

Caan, who himself was battling a drug addiction at the time, received plenty of plaudits for his performance at Axel Freed, and was nominated for a Golden Globe. The Gambler is as much a story about addiction to self-destruction as it is about gambling.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

A remake of the popular 1960s Rat Pack film of the same name, Steven Soderbergh’s version is arguably an improvement on the original and was a monster box office hit as well as a critical success.

Assembling one of the biggest all-star casts in Hollywood, Ocean’s Eleven stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, and many others.

Clooney plays lead character Danny Ocean, who along with friend Rusty Ryan (Pitt), plans a $160 million heist of casino owner Terry Benedict (Garcia) – who just so happens to be the lover of Ocean’s ex-wife Tess (Roberts).

Ocean’s Eleven has all the ingredients of an edge-of-the-seat heist thriller, with its slick characters, elaborate plan, and plenty of glitz and glamour. The subsequent sequels struggled to build on the first movie but the 2001 film is one of Clooney’s best – which is saying something.

The Cooler (2003)

Built on the urban myth of casino ‘coolers’ – people whose bad luck energy can ruin a player’s hot streak just be being in their presence – The Cooler stars William H. Macy as Bernie Lootz, an unlucky employee at the Shangri-La casino who is employed as a cooler as part of his debt repayments to casino boss Shelly (Alec Baldwin).

Smitten with cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello), Lootz eventually strikes up a relationship with her and starts to see his luck turn, much to the annoyance of Shelly. Armed with his new good fortune, Lootz must now navigate the many dangers and pitfalls of his life within the crime-riddled casino business. 

A dark romantic drama, The Cooler was positively received by critics, with Baldwin and Bello, in particular, earning rave reviews and award nominations by the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild.

Opened to a limited cinematic release, Wayne Kramer’s directorial debut has since gained cult status, while Lootz is the perfect role for Macy.

Author: Paulius Narkevičius

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