Las Vegas is one of those distinctly American creations: it was designed and built by a gangster, in the middle of a deathly desert, as a utopian celebration for bad behavior, gilded excessive-ness, criminal activity and off-color kitsch. It’s a place where you can stay in intricately themed hotel/casinos based upon the pyramids of Egypt, Arthurian castles, New York City, Paris, Amazonian rain forests, Roman coliseums and Robert Louis Stevenson‘s novel “Treasure Island,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find a museum or library to whet your cultural appetite. And yet there’s something hypnotically attractive about this place – we keep returning to it, again and again, both in real life and in the movies. This week’s “Hangover, Part III” climaxes (as it were) in Vegas, high atop Caesar’s Palace, and in keeping with this we decided to celebrate the bad taste and blinding neon lights of Vegas by showcasing ten of the very best Las Vegas movies.
“Ocean’s 11” (Lewis Milestone, 1960)
It’s a swinging good time in 1960s original, Rat Pack-led “Ocean’s 11,” a movie that might not be great but is at least enough of a curiosity to watch once. Frank Sinatra plays Danny Ocean, who recruits, in the words of the movie’s mostly silent trailer “11 ex-paratroopers from his old outfit” (yes, they were World War II veterans-turned-conmen – greatest generation my ass) to rob five Las Vegas casinos, most of which don’t even exist anymore (Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, and the Flamingo), in one night. The movie does have some nice flourishes – the fact that it’s set on New Year’s Eve is kind of a nifty touch, clearly at a time before fireworks and lavish water fountains were a daily occurrence in Sin City – and the opening animated title sequence, designed by Saul Bass and appropriating a kind electric readout, is an art deco dazzler. Unfortunately, at 127 minutes it’s overlong by at least a half hour, the film is oddly moralistic (keep in mind this was 1960) and oftentimes it seems like the movie’s stars (which included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Richard Conte, Joey Bishop, Henry Silva, and Cesar Romero), infatuated with the movie’s location more than the movie’s script, look like they’re ready to bolt the second somebody yells “cut.” Quite frankly a movie tracing the off-camera exploits of the cast as they cavorted around Las Vegas is probably ten times the movie the actual “Ocean’s 11” ended up being. As a time capsule capturing Las Vegas at that particular time, it’s indispensable, as an actual movie, it’s less so.
“Viva Las Vegas” (George Sidney, 1964)
It’s hard to be both an Elvis fanatic and a movie lover, since most of his movies were fucking terrible (although it is worth noting that “Girls Girls Girls” has that “Walls Have Ears” sequence where he does the whole song with a full-on erection). That being said, “Viva Las Vegas” (advertised as “the swingin’est, singin’est, grooviest, lovin’est entertainment sensation it has ever been your luck to enjoy”) is one of the more watchable Elvis vehicles, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s Elvis’ inherent connection with Las Vegas (both are emblematic of American kitsch and, of course, Elvis played Vegas frequently). Then there’s Ann-Margret as Elvis’ love interest, who is absolutely wonderful (the pair started a real-life affair during production). Also, this movie is really weird even by Elvis Presley movie standards (he’s a race-car driver who suffers engine trouble and loses his money resulting in him having to work as a waiter…), clocking in at 85 minutes with songs around every corner and an extended race sequence climax that has some pretty impressive stunts (seriously). As a chronicle of Las Vegas, you kind of get a sense of the city, but it’s so goddamn obscured by the movie’s never-ending stream of goofy nonsense that it’s hard to really lock down. Still, the most virtuoso stroke of genius of “Viva Las Vegas” is the performance of the titular song, done in one stunning take that borders on mesmerizing (love Elvis’ bare chest). Encore!
“Bugsy” (Barry Levinson, 1991)
What makes “Bugsy” one of the truly great Las Vegas movies is that it gets to explore how the city was founded. Of course, like all things Vegas, it was created in the seediest possible way – by a visionary, murderous, love-struck gangster named Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty), who looked at a barren desert and saw an oasis of opportunity. (He’s kind of like the evil Walt Disney in that way. Well. More evil.) In a lot of ways, “Bugsy” is a story of the American dream – of upward mobility. He’s a mob enforcer who goes to California, falls in love with a starlet (played by Beatty’s real-life honey Annette Bening) and becomes obsessed with the idea of building a casino in the middle of the desert (it would become the Flamingo – a casino still standing today, now with a monorail station in the back). Directed by Barry Levinson (whose “Rain Man” featured a memorable sequence set in Las Vegas) from a crackling script by James Toback, “Bugsy” is one of those big historical epics where movie stars get to dress up like gangsters (Harvey Keitel plays Mickey Cohen and calls Bugsy a “fruitcake;” Ben Kingsley is Meyer Lansky) and the whole movie trembles with a kind of lumbering importance, even while Bugsy explains his plan to Lansky while wearing a giant floppy chef’s hat. While mostly forgotten now, “Bugsy” was a big time Oscar contender the same year as “Silence of the Lambs” and was nominated in almost every major category. Sadly, like in Vegas, sometimes you lose big (it did grab two technical awards, but those are kind of like free martinis in this extended Oscars-as-Las-Vegas metaphor).
“Honeymoon in Vegas” (Andrew Bergman, 1992)
As cheesy and convoluted as “Honeymoon in Vegas” can be, it’s also incredibly charming, zippy, and outrageously funny. A weird mash-up of “Vertigo,” “Indecent Proposal” and the Hawaiian episode of “The Brady Bunch,” it concerns a man (Nic Cage) who promised his mother, on her deathbed, that he wouldn’t get married. He goes back on that promise, of course, after his longtime girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker, at her most unbelievably adorable) pressures him, so they hop on a flight to Las Vegas. It’s there that a professional gambler (James Caan) notices Parker’s striking resemblance to his ex-wife and rigs a card game so that Cage loses big. He then arranges for Parker to spend the weekend with him (with the promise of no sex), flying her down to Hawaii for a romantic getaway. (Cage, of course, hurriedly follows.) In Vegas, Caan proposes to her and they fly back to Vegas, which gives way to the movie’s most iconic sequence: one in which Cage jumps out of an airplane with the “Flying Elvises,” skydiving Elvis impersonators (complete with light-up jumpsuits). So, yeah, it’s pretty wacky, but it mostly works. It’s got an unstoppable energy and smart direction by Andrew Bergman (who also wrote the script, he would have less success when he returned to Vegas – more on that later), who captures Las Vegas as it began its transition, in the early nineties, to a kind of Disney World with hookers and gambling (with just enough sleaze at the periphery). Also, for you trivia buffs out there – you know who plays one of the young Elvis impersonators? None other than future pop superstar Bruno Mars! Are you all shook up now?
“Casino” (Martin Scorsese, 1995)
Maybe the single greatest Las Vegas movie ever and certainly the most epic (everything about it is huge – it’s got 45 minutes of voice over alone), Martin Scorsese tackled the mob in grand, almost overwhelming fashion, which is perfect considering how excessive Las Vegas is. Everything about “Casino” is as gilded and overstuffed as the town itself, which probably explains why the movie was “too much” for a lot of people (he had to make cuts to avoid an NC-17 for violence). Based on the life of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a shady casino figure and Jewish mobster, played in the movie by Robert De Niro, “Casino” charts, with journalistic detail, what it’s like to be one of these operatives in Las Vegas at a very specific time (Las Vegas in the tumultuous, mob-controlled 70s). For all of its ambitious sprawl, “Casino” often exhibits a singular, laser-like focus. Many of the dozens of characters are based on real-life figures, including De Niro’s wife, played by Sharon Stone (who was nominated for the Oscar) and his gangster friend, played by Joe Pesci (real-life Vegas personalities like Frankie Avalon, Dick Smothers, and Don Rickles all appear, sometimes playing themselves). At 178 minutes, it might be slightly too much of a good thing (the soundtrack was a double-album for crying out loud), but it’s a titanic accomplishment and one of Scorsese’s best and most frequently overlooked films.
“Leaving Las Vegas” (Mike Figgis, 1995)
While most Las Vegas movies celebrate the fizzy what-happens-in-Vegas craziness usually associated with the city, there are a few that choose to instead linger on the underlying seediness and depression that creeps into a place like Las Vegas – one that was literally built upon desperation, illegality, criminality and loose morals. “Leaving Las Vegas,” easily the most depressing movies ever made about Las Vegas and probably one of the best, focuses on a screenwriter (Nicholas Cage) whose chronic alcoholism leaves him with nothing. He travels to Las Vegas intending to drink himself to death. It’s there that he meets a hooker (Elisabeth Shue) and they form an unusual bond – he doesn’t want sex, just for her to promise that she’ll make sure he keeps drinking. It’s obviously doomed and tragic and you know how it’s going to end, but it’s a testament to the brilliant performances by both actors (Cage was rewarded with an Academy Award for his troubles, Shue was not) that you get engaged anyway and root for a different outcome to their sad, sad story together. It’s an essential Las Vegas movie in that it showcases something that must happen countless times a day in a town built around the concept of unapologetically taking large sums of money from people and its release, in 1995 at the height of the Disney-fication of Vegas (when the MGM Grand expanded with a world class theme park), was brilliantly subversive.
“Swingers“/”Go” (Doug Liman, 1996 and 1999)
There are small (but considerable) portions of both of Doug Liman‘s first movies set in Las Vegas. In “Swingers,” his tale of LA hipsters who engage in a romanticized notion of the past, partially to differentiate them from their peers and partially because its an affectation that is actually somewhat charming, a group of friends (led by Vince Vaughn) take an overnight trip to Las Vegas in order to help one of their buddies (Jon Favreau) get over a bad break-up. Of course, things don’t work, exactly, and his hang-ups with the ex-girlfriend ultimately spoil things. This section of the movie is really poppy, though, and illuminates how close Las Vegas and Los Angeles really are, something that is all too infrequently exploited. In Liman’s next film, which also concerned Los Angeles youth culture but this time was centered around the even-more-esoteric “rave” phenomenon (talk about being ahead of its time), a third of the film is set in Las Vegas. Again: it’s a group of friends who are looking for a wild time, but this time hinges on a Brit (Desmond Askew) who doesn’t quite grasp American culture, let alone the sex-and-violence overload of Las Vegas. Structured like a miniaturized version of “After Hours,” things go from bad to worse and involve a hotel fire and a shooting at a strip club (it never gets too dark, this is a post-Tarantino comedy with an emphasis on the comedy). As far as Las Vegas movies go, it’s interesting because both are focused on the exploits of young people without a lot of money (Las Vegas is typically exemplified by lavish excessive-ness and the Vegas-on-the-cheap story is rarely told). It’s also fascinating that both of Liman’s films would choose, for even a moment, to escape to Las Vegas. When he needed just a little bit more insanity, he knew where to go.
“Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas” (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Terry Gilliam‘s breathtakingly brilliant adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson‘s work of fantastical gonzo journalism is like the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas that most movies hint at but never linger on, but here it lasts for the entire running time. It gets to the point that it’s so disgusting that, immediately after the movie is done, you want to take a Silkwood shower (exemplified by a sequence where a hotel room is flooded with water and everyone has to slosh around). Set in the 60s, when, ostensibly, Thompson (played in shockingly vivid detail by Johnny Depp) was set to cover a desert road race (like the kind Elvis raced in!), but instead hung out in Las Vegas, drank heavily, and took a bevy of exotic drugs supplied to him in part by his “doctor” (Benicio del Toro). The movie is littered with fleeting appearances by movie stars in horrible wigs and make-up (including Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Christina Ricci and Cameron Diaz), with the movie giving off the garish, burnt-out look of a fried neon sign. Unrelentingly perverse, the movie is the other side of every “look we’re having such a wonderfully drug-fueled time in Las Vegas” movie out there, and the period detail that Gilliam and his collaborators is wonderfully paradoxical, both grim and sunshine-y. For a movie so hilarious, too, it can get awfully dark and the entire thing is infused with a bolt of blackened melancholy. But then again, maybe the sadness just makes it even funnier.
“Ocean’s Eleven” (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
The original “Ocean’s 11” was the kind of movie that was ideally suited for a remake, because it’s not all that good but its core concept is something that, if the right filmmakers came along, could really turn it into something special, which is, thankfully, what happened with the revitalized “Ocean’s Eleven.” In place of the Rat Pack, director Steven Soderbergh assembled a murderer’s row of top tier movie stars, including but not limited to George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle and Elliot Gould. What’s more, the story was updated to the kind of post-Disney glitz of Las Vegas, with the gang (who are individualized criminals instead of being old war buddies of Danny Ocean’s) looking to take down a trio of real-life casinos owned in the film by a wonderfully villainous Andy Garcia. “Ocean’s Eleven” is all about the dynamics of male camaraderie and the romanticism of returning to a life of crime, and the thematic concerns of the movie intertwine beautifully, like the dancing Las Vegas water fountains that the gang assembles by at the end of the film. Featuring a snappy script by Ted Griffin that gives as much comedic value to pauses and silence as it does to pithy one-liners, and fueled by a jazzy electro score by David Holmes (he was the one who resurrected the lost Elvis song “A Little Less Conversation”), Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” is a blast from start to finish, one of those fun Las Vegas trips you never want to end. Soderbergh’s third movie in the series, “Ocean’s Thirteen,” returned to Las Vegas and pitted the crew against an even-slimier hotel owner played by Al Pacino.
“The Cooler” (Wayne Kramer, 2003)
Sweetly romantic and totally bizarre, Wayne Kramer‘s “The Cooler” is an offbeat romantic comedy (of sorts) about a man (William H. Macy) hired by a Las Vegas casino boss to act as a “cooler.” This guy is such a loser that he causes the luck of anyone he stands near to plummet immediately. Clearly this is not based on anything even remotely realistic. The Cooler’s luck starts to change (and his job is put in jeopardy) by a romance with an attractive cocktail waitress (Maria Bello). One of the great things about “The Cooler” is that it shows what everyday working life is like in Las Vegas – Macy has a crummy apartment, hates his job, and his boss (played electric intensity by Alec Baldwin) is a total asshole. This is the reality for most employees of the Strip and details like this nicely anchor a movie that could have spun off into fantastical nonsense (and still often flirts with the possibility). Kramer is something of an underrated director and stages things wittily, and while the movie might be most remembered for its inclusion in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” a documentary about the faulty rating practices of the MPAA (it initially received an NC-17 rating for a glimpse of Bello’s pubic hair in a scene where Macy goes down on her), it remains a sweet-and-soul fable set in a Las Vegas that’s straddled between the old and the new.
Those that just missed the cut by a showgirl’s G-string: “Indecent Proposal,” a kind of dopey erotic drama that feels like a less-fun version of “Honeymoon in Vegas;” “Diamonds Are Forever,” a Sean Connery James Bond entry where he travels to Las Vegas and runs into a pair of lethal showgirls named (wait for it) Bambi and Thumper; “Vegas Vacation,” which retained Chevy Chase and lost the “National Lampoon” moniker, but at least has a few decent jokes; Paul Thomas Anderson‘s tortured debut “Hard Eight,” which is mostly set in Reno, but has a few moments in Las Vegas; Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man” also has a truly unforgettable sequence set in Las Vegas (Dustin Hoffman! Tom Cruise! Matching suits!); Peter Berg‘s underrated black comedy “Very Bad Things” shows how easily a bachelor party can spiral out of control very quickly, especially when dead hookers are involved; “Striptease,” which saw Andrew Bergman return with the much-hyped, mostly useless Demi Moore-starring crime caper; the original “Hangover” was set in Las Vegas and was fairly insane; and, of course, the second greatest Las Vegas epic of all time after “Casino,” Paul Verhoeven‘s NC-17-rated cult classic “Showgirls” brought us onto the stage of a hotel/casino’s topless revue in the campiest way possible. We still quote it to this day.