All Bets Are Off: Top Ten Films About Las Vegas

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Las Vegas…the hotbed haven where dreams of high rollers are realized among the glitzy bright lights, the element of chance and luck and the adrenaline for instant fortune. But there is a deception to Sin City that is overlooked–the isolation of a gambler’s anxiety and desperation, the false sense of confidence at the craps table and the swinging doors of the psychological lows more so than the rewarding highs.

Still, Las Vegas has its excitable aura–both innocence and guilt–where one arrives to skillfully manufacture their financial profile or go bust. In some instances, the hedonistic expectations are defined in other fun, precarious ways. It is no wonder that Hollywood has come calling to put its distinctive spin on the capital city of adult entertainment. For decades, the movies have made Las Vegas its backdrop for wonderment, degradation, intrigue, comical curiosity and soul-searching revelations.

In All Bets Are Off: Top Ten Films About Las Vegas we will take a look at the films that made this mecca of mischievousness a stimulating setting for escapism at the box office for the course of decades. The films mentioned here is by no means the “best critically received” films about Las Vegas (Showgirls anyone?) but this mixed bag of cinema selections have captured the off-kilter spirit of a splashy city that flirts with the imaginations and expectations of its awed visitors seeking titillating fulfillment.

The selections for All Bets Are Off: Top Ten Films About Las Vegas are (in alphabetical order):

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1.) Bugsy (1991)

BET ON THIS: One cannot possibly create a top ten list about Sin City without including the Barry Levinson-directed Bugsy that told the story about the humble beginnings of what Las Vegas would later become at the enthusiastic hands of infamous Big Apple gangster Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty). With Siegel’s criminal ingenuity and imagination he would turn a dingy desert gambling venue into an enterprising paradise where the money-making operations was fueled by the progressive stroking of the corruption brush. Bugsy was the nostalgic and perceptive peek into rise of a tingling town built on one misguided but enterprising man’s notorious vision to prominence and power in the criminal underworld. Bugsy Siegel was a flashy figurehead with a refined taste for feisty women (just ask Virginia Hill) and dapper attire. His short-tempered personality and partiality for exuberance would rub onto the latter day Las Vegas he cultivated so methodically.

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2.) Casino (1995)

BET ON THIS: Filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s explosive Casino managed to spotlight Las Vegas with its two dueling faces: the open and enticing opulence for the gambling patrons and the horrific and hidden ugliness of behind-the-scenes tactics. The tandem connected to the profitable treats and terror of Las Vegas’s hypnotizing grip is mobster best buddies Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci). The turmoil and differing philosophies (not to mention immense mob connections) threaten the co-existences of Rothstein and Santoro. And when hustling hussy Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) is added into the mix as a distraction for Rothstein the stakes become much higher than rolling snakes eyes at one of the nearby casinos. Santoro’s penchant for sheer violence does not help and the downward spiral for the gangster best friends all become part of the acidic confusion in Casino’s penetrating playground known as Las Vegas.

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3.) The Cooler (2003)

BET ON THIS: Director Wayne Kramer’s vastly underrated The Cooler used Las Vegas as a stronghold for a gambling jinx (or “cooler”) named Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) who is hired to roam the casinos and act as a bad luck charm for hot-streak gamblers on a roll. Bernie’s boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin in his Oscar-nominated role) is not too pleased that his once revered cooler is losing his magic touch and costing his casino money in the process. Kaplow is not too thrilled to hear that his ineffective employee found love in cocktail waitress Natalie (Marion Bello)–a regrettable source that the mob-connected casino owner feels is weakening the flustered Bernie. Soon, Kaplow will take drastic measures to ensure that Bernie is in line with his expectations to repair his “cooler” reputation at his casino. If not sad sack Bernie’s honey Natalie and his estranged son may pay the ultimate price.

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4.) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

BET ON THIS: Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s literary lunacy comes to wacky fruition in the Terry Gilliam-directed off-balance Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The ridiculously erratic and grating Fear was not received too well by critics and proved to be an over-the-top, annoyingly twitchy performance for Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke as he and beefy Samoan lawyer sidekick Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) take a random road trip west while spacing out on drugs and booze en route to an adventurous experimentation of free-wheeling excess. Certainly Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas gave credence to Thompson’s signature manic psychedelic persona but nothing else beyond this nagging acid trip of a movie.

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5.) The Hangover (2009)

BET ON THIS: Director Todd Phillips’s riotous and corrosive comedy The Hangover allowed Las Vegas to be a haze-ridden puzzle for three best buddies (Bradley Cooper’s Phil, Ed Helms’s Stu and Zack Galifianakis’s Alan) that have no recollection from what occurred during a brain-frying bachelor party from the previous night. Importantly, the trio have “misplaced” their friend Doug and need to track him down before his wedding day. Thus, Phil, Stu and Alan must endure the absurdity of getting taser-gunned by minors at a police station, harassed by an effeminate-sounding Asian gangster Mr. Chow, saddled with a glib “black” Doug replacement, become caretakers for a mysterious infant, dodge a loose large 400-pound cat in their hotel room and rub shoulders (and get punched) by boxing icon :Iron” Mike Tyson. The drunken drowsiness and all the shenanigans that follow made for madcap excellence (until more monotonous Hangover sequels predictably followed suit).

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6.) Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)

BET ON THIS: The colorful comedy Honeymoon in Vegas takes on the familiar subject matter that one associates with Vegas: quickie marriages, Elvis impersonators, shifty gamblers and of course Nicholas Cage (the actor has strangely been associated with Las Vegas courtesy of his couple of films (Leaving Las Vegas, Con Air, etc.) that incorporated the bustling tourist town’s reputation for such associations). Cage’s Jack Singer and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Betsy (a.k.a. Donna) get hitched despite a warning from his Mommy Dearest back home not to tie the knot under any circumstances. Obviously this advice causes Jack’s lingering anxieties and has him scared to visit the land of nuptials. Add a deceptive wealthy gambler in Tommy Korman (Janes Caan as another actor tied to Sin City with his Vegas NBC drama several years ago) into the mix to set up poor Jack with a rigged poker game as an excuse to get close to Betsy. Betsy, it appears, is a reminder of the big-time bettor’s cherished late wife as her resemblance is quite striking to his precious Donna. So to clear Jack’s fraudulent debt to Tommy he no choice but to let his woman Betsy spend some quality weekend time with the full-pocketed Vegas vet. The circumstantial love triangle high jinks behind Honeymoon in Vegas is a spirited romp where the characters go bust in more ways than one.

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7.) Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

BET ON THIS: It was exactly twenty years ago that Nicholas Cage finally got his due as he nabbed the Best Actor Oscar for his intoxicating turn as alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter Ben Sanderson whose arrival in Las Vegas is self-destructive: he wants to drown in the bottle and drink himself into oblivion in Mike Figgis’s absorbing drama Leaving Las Vegas. Las Vegas has always been a psychological setting for both the hopeful and the hopeless that come to the vibrant city looking for either redemption or recklessness. For Sanderson, it was the latter sentiment. At his last straw, Sanderson has nothing to live for at this point having lost everything so meaningful to him. However, the only thing in Las Vegas keeping the binge drinker somewhat distracted from drinking himself to death is his budding friendship and affection for prostitute Sera (Elixabeth Shue). Figgis’s dramatic and dour examination of two lost souls searching for desperate structure in chaotic, isolated existences seemed compelling in a bouncy backdrop of a Las Vegas that invites one’s adventurous instincts to gamble with the insurmountable odds. Resourcefully, Leaving Las Vegas gambled with broken hearts and detached souls as well.

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8.) Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

BET ON THIS: With all due respect to the youngsters and young adults that think about the George Clooney-led update of 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven as the ultimate Las Vegas heist movie do not commit the disservice of disregarding the original 1960 blueprint that featured Ol’ Blue Eyes in Oscar winner Frank Sinatra and his fellow Rat Packers as they roguishly take the gambling town by storm with their ambitious agenda to rob five casinos in one night without detection.  Sinatra’s Danny Ocean gathers his eleven wartime buddies as they plan the aggressive heist with style and smoothness. It did not go without notice that the famed core of the Rat Pack (Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford) were real-life Vegas veterans that routinely ruled the rowdy town with their legendary collective show-stopping night club gigs that displayed their spicy off-the-cuff on-stage antics that catered to the receptive casino crowds. Whether with or without a feature film, the nighttime swingers of playful debauchery will always remain the pulsating poster boys of Las Vegas’s calculating coolness from the Camelot-era show business perspective.

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9.) Showgirls (1995)

BET ON THIS: Okay, what piece of entertainment should actress Elizabeth Berkley have shunned on her showbiz resume? Is it her stint as one of the participants in the popular but pedestrian late 80’s/early 90’s high school sitcom Saved by the Bell or the unintentional laughable Paul Verhoeven-directed, Joe Eszterhas-written movie drama Showgirls? Let’s just say that there were more preferable classroom sessions over five seasons to endure on Bell than seeing the luscious Liz strut her stuff in the shoddy Showgirls. Hey, at least Showgirls showed the exploits of a working girl in Vegas as Berkley’s Nomi Malone comes to Sin City in pursuit of a dancing career on stage. However, Nomi wants to instantly make a name for herself as a top Vegas showgirl and will do what it takes to achieve this lofty goal. It is too bad that the collaborative creativity of Verhoeven and Eszterhas could not take the same page from their high-stepping heroine in this exotic dancing dud and go for the gusto in reaching the same kind of achievement.

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10.) Viva Las Vegas (1964)

BET ON THIS: Indeed, The King made a lot of arbitrary movies as his opportunistic handlers were willing to put him into any film project just to capitalize on his proven singing stardom. Sure, Elvis Presley was not what you would call a polished actor by any stretch of the imagination and the majority of his movies were gimmicky and forgettable unless you simply did not care at all because you were there to see Elvis the Pelvis make his manufactured mark on the big screen. But Elvis had his critical successes at the box office and director George Sidney’s Viva Las Vegas was certainly one of the iconic hip-swiveling performer’s best films. Elvis and Ann-Margaret (in front and behind the camera) made for the ideal photogenic couple as race car driver Lucky Jackson and the curvaceous Rusty Martin. Lucky has to hustle and “sing and dance” for his supper at the Vegas if he is to repair his expensive engine in time to enter the Grand Prix race. The Las Vegas surrounding festivities of singing, dancing, racing, romancing–it all provided the kinetic coziness for real-life Vegas headliners Elvis and Ann-Margaret to sizzle at the prized playground of live entertainment on the big screen.

HONORABLE MENTION:

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Swingers (2007)

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Vegas Vacation (1997)

–Frank Ochieng

 

 

2 Comments
  1. Ted says

    A good list. It’s kind of tough coming up with just 10 plus 2 honorable mentions. I mean, what would the first 2 ‘Godfather’ films be without the Las Vegas segments. Or ‘Rain Man’ for that matter. Of course, Las Vegas played only strong supporting parts in these films. ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ comes to mind. And though it’s a made-for-television movie, I think my all time favorite is ‘The Night Stalker’

  2. Kyle says

    Go and Very Bad Things belong on there over the last few movies you listed… hell, Very Bad Things should be on this list over the Hangover due to the fact it stole so much without even coming close to as original or as dark as that film was.

    And Swingers could easily be number one.

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