Casino Jack (Blu-Ray)
Jack Abramoff. Tom DeLay. Grover Norquist. It’s been a few years, now, and while those names and many others may still linger like ghosts in the back of the public consciousness, the reason why has long since been buried under the weighty grind of the 24-hour news cycle. “Didn’t that guy go to prison, or something?” I was asked when I told a friend about this movie. Well, I told him, it depends on which that guy you’re talking about.
It’s the beginning of the 21st century. George Bush has been elected by the slimmest possible margin, but the GOP effectively controls Capitol Hill, and the champagne is flowing as friends of the administration are rewarded for their loyalty with sinecures, favors – and the most precious resource of all, Access. (People say Access in this movie reverently, like it’s a proper noun with the A capitalized, the way prospectors in the 1800s might have said Gold.) And the master of this resource is Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), a paid and licensed lobbyist whose job is, quite simply, to use his Access to buy favors from congressmen and senators. For example, when a textiles manufacturer in the remote US territory of the Marianas Islands worries that a new minimum-wage bill will force it to pay its employees a competitive wage, it retains Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) to take influential legislators, such as Speaker of the House Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), on expensive pleasure cruises to the islands and to donate large sums of money to their campaigns.
Where did this Access, this ability to walk into the offices of powerful men and tell them how to vote on important issues, come from? The movie makes it clear that it is about fitting into the culture of Washington. He attends the right social functions with his beautiful wife and five kids in tow, says the right things to the right people, and doesn’t let little details like being an Orthodox Jew deter him from joining Tom DeLay and DeLay’s favorite Baptist minister in a moment of Christian prayer in the congressman’s front office. In private, Abramoff is irreverent and funny, with a passion for movies (in real life he wrote and produced Dolph Lundgren’s RED SCORPION) and impersonations, but around his clients he’s all business.
Washington at this place and time has the feeling of a boom town like Deadwood, a kind of lawless place where people flock to find their fortune. Abramoff and Scanlon are no different; despite seeming like established, wealthy professionals, they live far beyond their means, buying houses and stadium skyboxes they can’t afford, investing in pie-in-the-sky projects like a chain of restaurants or a Hebrew day school, and living more like the rich people they socialize with than the upper-middle-class people they are. When his wife notices that he has been bouncing mortgage checks, Jack decides it’s time to cash in, and he and Scanlon begin the get-rich-quick schemes that would eventually bring them down – shaking down Native American tribes for millions of dollars in lobbying fees under the table, and recruiting a feckless, untrustworthy mattress tycoon (Jon Lovitz) with mob ties to help them invest in a line of off-shore cruise boat casinos run by dangerous Greek gangsters.
This is complicated material, but director George Hickenlooper – who died not longer after the film’s release – proves more or less up to the task, keeping things fresh and funny and not letting the proceedings get too bogged down in details. His direction is invisible but deft; the movie moves fast, with a pleasant, champagne-like fizz. Unfortunately, CASINO JACK sometimes moves too fast, with important plot points happening one after another without any time to sink in. The last half hour, with the law closing in on Abramoff as his schemes and dreams unravel, should feel powerful and devastating, but instead it just feels exhausting – we follow Jack Abramoff into federal prison at the end not with a sense of sadness or of justice being done, but simple relief that the movie has finally stopped to let us get our bearings.
That said, having too much plot is not a tremendously common problem in the movies, so it doesn’t bother me as much as it might otherwise – and the fantastic cast helps it go down pretty well. Spacey is almost instinctively likeable in his roles, but always projects a keen intelligence – here, he uses those qualities to turn Abramoff into a charming rogue, smiling his way into bribery and fraud. He’s supported ably by the intensity of Barry Pepper, who plays Scanlon like a coked-out bond trader, always moving and talking a mile a minute. Jon Lovitz plays another one of his trademark slobs, but does it well, and there’s a brief but worthwhile turn by legendary Native American actor Graham Greene as an Indian tribal chief determined to get revenge on Abramoff for bilking his people of millions.
The German leader Otto von Bismarck once wrote that “people are happier not knowing how laws and sausages are made,” and CASINO JACK shows the truth behind the aphorism. The friend I watched the movie with was genuinely surprised and horrified by what passes for business-as-usual on Capitol Hill, but the movie wisely avoids turning into a rabble-rousing polemic, instead focusing on the core story of a man whose greed leads him to take bigger and bigger risks until he loses it all. You’d think a guy they called “Casino Jack” would have known that, in the end, the house always wins.
Video: CASINO JACK is not a visual spectacle – it was made on a surprisingly low budget, and the only special effects are of the green-screen variety to convince us that a street corner in Toronto is actually Pennsylvania Ave in Washington – but the 2.35:1 Blu-Ray transfer looks sharp and clear.
Audio: The Dolby 5.1 DTS HD audio track isn’t really put to the test; this movie is about dialogue and lots of it, but it comes through with the HD clarity we expect.
“Visual Diary by Director George Hickenlooper” – I thought this extra sounded like a throwaway, but it was surprisingly interesting and easily the best of the disc’s thin selection of features; it consists of a few dozen on-set still photographs taken by Hickenlooper of the cast and crew hard at work, accompanied by a written commentary in text captions below, which the viewer can page through at will. Hickenlooper has a good eye for warm, candid moments with his cast and tells some funny stories; it’s a shame he wasn’t able to record a full audio commentary.
“Gag Reel” (8:26) – Par for the course for DVD gag reels; a quickie series of outtakes and flubbed lines that, as usual, are a lot funnier for the people who were actually there than for us watching at home.
“Deleted Scenes” (9:05) – This is a slight misnomer, as it actually is more of an extension of a couple of truncated scenes from near the end of the movie, including an awkwardly hilarious bit where Abramoff pitches a Moses action movie to Paramount with the line, “it’s the Old Testament meets The Bourne Identity!” Given the hectic and confused pace of the final act, I think excising this material was probably a mistake.