Hollywood and gambling is a match made in heaven such as playing at Dream Jackpot. They both have two sides to them and are full of colourful characters. There is the seedy side of gambling that goes on in unlicensed venues and has links to organized crime and the glitzy side that is portrayed at casinos.
Hollywood also has a seedy underbelly of drugs and exploitation but it is also seen as a playground for the rich and famous. When these two worlds collide, the results are memorable cinema.
Many films focus on gambling or gamblers and this theme is a versatile tool for storytelling. Gambling is used in comedies such as The Hangover or thrillers like one of the finest James Bond films ever, Casino Royale.
Not only are gamblers used to great effect in Hollywood movies, but the environments that they inhabit is also used as backdrops to some great storytelling. The most utilized locations are the already mentioned casinos.
Casinos are cinematic both in look and from the characters they attract. They are also full of drama, excitement and winners and losers.
Screenwriters have utilized all these elements and produced some memorable films that have also been big commercial hits. Some have even become classics of their time. In no particular order, here are some of the best Hollywood casino movies.
The 21st James Bond Film released in 2006 and directed by Martin Campbell introduced the world to a new far grittier Bond and probably the finest of them all. Daniel Craig slips into this world-famous character with ease and makes Pierce Brosnan’s Bond seem like a bad dream.
Gone are the cheesy one-liners and double entendres, instead, we get a more ruthless and violent hero. This Bond has everything you would expect from this franchise, beautiful women, gripping action sequences and stunning locations.
However, central to the plot is the plush casino from the title. There are lengthy scenes in it that are both tense and thrilling, without the need for physical action.
The casino world here is portrayed as a place inhabited by the wealthy and powerful. High rollers mix with beautiful women and the stakes in the poker tournament are on another level.
In the casino Bond is tracking Le Chiffre, an infamous terrorist who is in Montenegro trying to win enough money to get his dangerous acquaintances off his back. M sends out Bond to play against him and to prevent him from escaping.
The casino scenes are some of the best in the film and the poker game remains tense and captivating throughout.
On a lighter note the Hangover plays on the themes of visiting Vegas and letting go, a little too much. Released in 2009 and directed by Todd Phillips, this bawdy comedy proved a big hit with cinema audiences.
It stars Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis and follows the familiar plot of a group of men having a wild bachelor party and waking up to face the consequences. They also have to try to piece together what actually went on.
The star of the show here is Caesar’s Palace suite. The casino, although important does not take centre stage here. The casino representation is far different from Casino Royale. In The Hangover, it’s a place for everyone to come and have fun. There is glamour but it’s not exclusively inhabited by the rich and powerful.
The aptly named The Gambler was released all the way back in 1974 and was directed by Karel Reisz. James Caan of Godfather fame plays the complex Axel Freed, a man hiding a double life from his family.
By day he is a university lecturer and by night, a down on his luck gambling addict knee-deep in debt. What is interesting here is the take on addiction. Axel Freed is both addicted to gambling but also the danger it puts him in when his debts mount.
Since this is the case, his betting habits are reckless and high risk. If you enjoy dramas set in the seedy side of gambling where the mafia are never far away, then this is the film for you.
There are casino scenes aplenty as Axel borrows money from his mother and heads to Vegas to try and get himself out of debt. The casinos of the ’70s have glitz and glamour but danger too.
Rupert Wyatt remade this movie in 2014 and Mark Wahlberg takes the lead role that is based on James Caan’s Axel Freed.
Rain Man is famous for a superb performance by Dustin Hoffman in the title role. He plays the older autistic brother of Tom Cruise. It was released in 1988 and directed by Barry Levinson.
It’s a thought-provoking drama that broke boundaries on its day and bagged 4 Oscars whilst doing so. It’s a story of greed and exploitation as Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise runs into financial difficulties with his business.
He discovers that his father left his fortune to a mental institution responsible for caring for his older brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman. Charlie attempts to gain custody of his brother and gain his father’s fortune.
Whilst with his brother, he recognizes Raymond’s talent with numbers and they hit the Vegas Casinos together to try and win a fortune.
The casinos here are all about the glamour and having a fun time. It’s a place where the fellow punters gather round to experience the thrills of winning with the lucky brothers.
No ‘Best Hollywood Casino Movies’ list is complete without Martin Scorsese’s 1996 epic gangster flick Casino. It’s a fascinating examination of the two faces of gambling.
There is the glamour and excitement of Vegas casinos that the punters see, whilst behind the scenes, there is ugliness and violence involving the mafia. The casino is the visual star of this movie.
Other films worth a mention are Rounders, 21 and casino heist movie Ocean’s Eleven.