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GO WEST, YOUNG HOOD

Following a high-toned promenade through Edwardian New York, The Age of Innocence, Martin Scor-sese is back doing what he does best--wallowing in the Age of Corruption. Casino, Scorsese's three-hour journey through the back rooms, bedrooms and killing grounds of Las Vegas, is tinged with hip satire and studded with scenes of stomach-turning violence. But it is dominated by outright nostalgia for the mobbed-up, coked-out Vegas Strip of the 1970s--a time when Mafia bagmen still hauled black satchels stuffed with millions in skimmed cash out of the count rooms, when a visionary ex-Chicago bookie named Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal built an empire at the Stardust Hotel, and when his boyhood pal, a sadistic little loudmouth called Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, provided the muscle. They had a lock on their new paradise, but they screwed up.

Not surprisingly, greed brought it all tumbling down. Along with lust and power. Scorsese may still be the most streetwise major-movie director in America--Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding. But deep down he remains, by his own acknowledgment, a Catholic boy obsessed with the sin of pride and a neoclassicist fascinated by the tragic flaw. From Raging Bull to Goodfellas to Cape Fear, he has dwelt on protagonists whose boundless ambition lays them low--guys who can't leave a good thing alone. For better or worse, we meet a similar bunch in Casino.

"Las Vegas does for us what Lourdes does for humpbacks and cripples," one of the transplanted Midwestern wiseguys says. In their case, though, salvation in "a city with no memory" comes through hard cash--lots of it--and Paradise Lost looms at the next bank of slot machines.

For some reason, Scorsese and his old Goodfellas collaborator, crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, have changed the names here to protect the guilty. In Pileggi's book, which is being released simultaneously with the movie (a pretty nice hustle in itself), Lefty is Lefty, Tony is the Ant, and Lefty's conniving bombshell of a wife, Geri McGee, is Geri McGee.

On screen, the Stardust has been renamed the Tangiers, and Chicago, the pioneers' hometown, is never specifically mentioned. Robert De Niro's high-flying casino boss, all decked out in matching silk-shirt-and-tie sets and lollipop-colored sports jackets, is now Sam "Ace" Rothstein, and his nasty little buddy, played by (who else?) Joe Pesci, is dubbed Nicky Santoro. The hard-hustling femme fatale Geri--the losing longshot in Ace's life--is now Ginger McKenna. By the way, who better to portray a whore with a heart of stone than, well, Sharon Stone?

With movies like Bugsy, The Godfather, Leaving Las Vegas and the awful bomb Showgirls boiling in their heads, many moviegoers may be sick of the whole Vegas "thing." But this is a Scorsese picture, so when he shows us where the bodies are buried, he does it with style. When hair-triggered Nicky sticks a guy's head in a vise and starts turning the crank, he does that with style. And when Ginger, a bejeweled bundle of cunning poured into a miniskirt (even at her wedding), goes hysterical behind drugs and avarice, that's stylish, too. In fact, the Martin Scor-sese Guided Tour of Las Vegas is worth every penny--from the vulgarities of the Rothsteins' living room, to the director's hilarious take on the dumb-smart cowboys who hold Nevada's native political power, to the lifelong grip a scummy pimp (terrific James Woods) holds on Ginger.

For authenticity's sake, longtime Vegas headliner Don Rickles plays a wary casino manager named Billy Sherbert, comic Alan King drops in as a crooked Teamsters boss who's siphoning cash out of the pension fund, and desert regulars Steve Allen, Jerry Vale and Frankie Avalon pop up in cameos as themselves. We also see, courtesy of Messrs. Pileggi and Scorsese, what they did to card cheats on the Strip in the Golden Era. Cattle prods. Hammers. Use your imagination.

Suffice it to say that the webs of jealousy, greed, adultery, extortion, murder and retribution Scorsese weaves here are familiar. As you might expect, the acting is uniformly superb. And there's a conspiratorial intimacy in Casino's behind-the-scenes glimpses that makes us all feel like insiders--even as we watch human beings beaten to death with baseball bats and Scorsese's trademark multiple narrators explain what's what on the soundtrack. Lest we still don't understand, our witty guide splashes occasional subtitles across the screen to translate the mobsters' coded messages over FBI-tapped phone lines.

This is very atmospheric stuff, and very convincing. For the most part, it's entertaining, too--for three hours.

By the time the bloodbath's done, though, these people still aren't big enough to be tragic, just greedy enough to get dead. Like the workaday hoods of Goodfellas, they have fat wads of cash in their pockets but very little inside their heads. So while Scorsese's classic rise-and-fall scenario, which has ruled gangster movies since the Thirties, still works beautifully, his grandiose scheme to portray the end of an era in Vegas, a second closing of the American frontier, doesn't quite wash. No one's going to miss Rosenthal/Rothstein the way we miss, say, Jesse James, and McGee/McKenna, a bimbo who snorts lines of coke in front of her eight-year-old daughter, is a pretty grotesque version of Annie Oakley. As for the moment when Spilotro/Santoro finally gets his, there's not a wet eye in the house. Meanwhile, Scor-sese concludes with the lament--Ace's and his--that Vegas is no longer quite Vegas but some kind of lame family vacation spot on the order of Disney World or Six Flags Over Texas.

Sure. Try telling that to the degenerates grinding it out all day long in the race books, or the bleary old ladies yanking on the one-armed bandits for nine hours at a stretch, or the $500 hookers working the lounge out at the Tropicana. Despite all the squeaky-clean corporate investors who replaced the mobsters in the Eighties and the public-relations campaigns and the pseudo-Egyptian fantasies in front of the new money mills, the only "family values" that prevail in Vegas come not from the Joneses but from the Corleones. You can bet on it.

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