It’s all out freaking war on the Vegas Strip! No, it isn’t mined one-armed bandits dispensing death instead of coins or croupiers painting the green felt red with the blood of hapless whales! It’s much more heinous than all that!
It’s Sharon Stone in an early role as Sarah, the girlfriend/casino worker, who nonchalantly tells her boyfriend/casino owner about how she sometimes decides to turn tricks. It’s James Earl Jones humiliating himself in a Don King fright wig, frequently accusing people of not liking him because of his race, thus forcing the accused to list all the other reasons they really don’t like him. And saddest of it, it’s Rock Hudson near the end of his life (and looking every bit of it), busting his ass to convince us that his character, casino operator Neil Chaine, is somehow a decent and honorable man as well as a ruthless businessman out to destroy the former business partners who done him wrong!
Neil runs the Desert Inn casino and does a great job doing it. We know this because at the beginning of the movie, his business partners tell us exactly that during a celebration of the impending opening of new casino they’ll be running in Atlantic City! But one unscheduled meeting in a friend’s horse barn later, he’s unceremoniously forced out of the company because as great as he is, since the Atlantic City Gaming Commission won’t license him, he now sucks!
But if Vegas is the sort of place where a business coup d’etat happens while simultaneously trying not to step in horseshit, you can bet it is also the type of place where man who has lost everything can rise from the ashes phoenix-like during an impromptu encounter at in a gym near the whirlpool! (It goes without saying that in a film like this Neil and Sarah have sex in a cell in Alcatraz for no real reason.)
Funded by a banker buddy of his, Neil buys the Tropicana casino which is pretty much in the Desert Inn’s backyard. His only mission is to make the Tropicana great again, destroy his old casino and probably tour Alcatraz a few more times!
Like any casino boss, Neil knows he needs a couple of things to succeed. He needs high rollers to generate revenue. He accomplishes this by enlisting the help of Yip, a Chinese guy who used to wager a ton of money at the Desert Inn until he lost it all. While Yip is pleading with Neil for a line of credit, Neil refuses making us think for a minute what a great guy Neil is until he tells Yip that he can work for Neil using his Hong Kong connections to drag wealthy Chinese gamblers into the Tropicana! And it works to perfection! Except those wealthy Chinese gamblers promptly win over $4 million and almost single-handedly destroy Neil!
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves because even before Neil demonstrates his business parters were right to fire him in between shoeing horses, Neil has to battle the Las Vegas Gaming Commission for his license! It might not be granted because of his dealings with a friend who is allegedly connected to the mob! And by allegedly, we mean one thousand percent certain because has anyone ever been wrongly accused of that? And plus the guy just looks so damn smarmy, he must be mobbed up!
Neil knows that when the facts are plainly against you (you were shown the FBI dossier about this dude’s mob connections, right Neil? Yeah, but I don’t believe it!), you just ignore them and act offended by the injustice of it all! How dare you use an unproven allegation against this man to deny me a license to fleece tourists! It’s positively un-American! Neil deilvers a stirring oratory about due process and fairness that calls to mind another great defense, that of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. But better, because unlike Atticus, Neil actually wins! (And if Neil’s friend turns up at the Tropicana later offering to use his mob connections to help bail Neil out of his financial jam, well he probably just joined the mob last week or something. )
With his license granted Neil can focus on beating the Desert Inn out of hosting a heavyweight boxing match. This involves Neil and Jack Madrid (Jones) double-crossing each other for the better part of the film until Madrid announces he is willing to loan Neil $2 million to help him stay afloat after the Chinese break the bank at the Tropicana. Neil though has a final, desperate scheme to fix everything. He takes all the money left in the bank, goes to the Desert Inn and is going to gamble his way to victory while breaking their bank!
What follows is the probably the most tension-filled craps game ever! I say probably because I have no idea what the hell goes on in a game of craps, but everyone looked appropriately worried whenever the dice got rolled. If I remotely knew what a “pass line” was or if the “don’t pass bar” part of the table was a big deal, I probably would’ve sweated right through my lucky “What Happens in Vegas” t-shirt!
The Vegas Strip War is perfect for people who want some high stakes gambling drama, but not so high stakes that anything that isn’t TV friendly will happen. Much like any decent Sunday School, there’s no cursing, some implied off-screen sex and a decided lack of violence. (A person does have his life threatened, but Rock Hudson is so cool that his triumph at the craps table inspires this person to joyfully announce that now he has the courage to ignore the threat and everyone lives happily ever after!)
Rock looks like death warmed over, but never comes off like he’s coasting in his final movie role. Sharon Stone doesn’t really impress, but isn’t provided much to do either. Consider it a dry run for when she starred in Martin Scorsese’s Casino eleven years later. And the less said about James Earl Jones and his cartoon character boxing promoter, the better. I hope he either had fun doing the part or got paid really well.
While a lot happens in the movie, despite Neil supposedly being such a smart guy, so much of it depends on him making poor decisions and then lucking out. (Not licensed in Atlantic City, but licensed in Las Vegas despite mob buddy, friendly banker, friendly boxing promoter, amazing run at the craps table.) But that just really makes this the perfect movie about Vegas, doesn’t it? Recommended to aspiring degenerate gamblers who are worried that the old James Caan TV show Las Vegas is too much of a time commitment that could be better spent learning baccarat the Chinese way.
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