Casino Jack [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (4th June 2011).
The Film

You know, I do a shitload of reading and studying and praying, and I've come to a few conclusions I want to share. People look at politicians and celebrities on the TV and the newspapers, glossy magazines – what do they see? “I'm just like them.” That's what they say. “I'm special. I'm different. I could be any one of them.” Well guess what, you can't. You know why? ‘Cause in reality, mediocrity is where most people live. Mediocrity is the elephant in the room. It's ubiquitous. Mediocrity in your schools. It's in your dreams. It's in your family. And those of us who know this – those of us who understand the disease of the dull – we do something about it. We do more because we have to. The deck was always stacked against us. You're either a big leaguer, or you're a slave clawing your way onto the “C” train. Some people say Jack Abramoff moves too fast. Jack Abramoff cuts corners. Well, I say to them, if that's the difference between me and my family having the good life and walkin' and using the subway every day, then so be it. I will not allow my family to be slaves. I will not allow the world I touch to be vanilla. You say I'm selfish? Fuck you! I give back. I give back plenty. You say I – I got a big ego? Fuck you twice! I'm humbly grateful for the wonderful gift that I've received here in America: the greatest country on this planet. I'm Jack Abramoff. And oh, yeah, I work out every day.

It is a lamentable fact that George Hickenlooper’s absurdly funny political biography “Casino Jack”, which was produced outside of the studio system and completed in 2009, basically just sat on a shelf somewhere and never saw a wide theatrical release. I assume that part of the reason for this is that Hickenlooper – who cut his teeth as a documentary filmmaker in the 1980's and early 90's working on “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” (1991), the incredible story of Francis Ford Coppola’s quest to make “Apocalypse Now” (1979) – died suddenly, shortly after he finished the “Jack”. It is only now, some two years later, after 20th Century Fox has finally picked it up for Blu-ray and DVD distribution, that the film will be available, to most people for he very the first time. It is essentially a direct-to-video film – having played in theaters, but only briefly in certain markets; I don’t recall it ever playing here in San Diego – which seems odd and most definitely unfortunate considering the film’s more than capable cast and timely subject matter. But Kevin Spacey’s triumphant return to acting – he’s been in films, but mostly just bad one’s like “Shrink” (2009) as of recent – is of equal, if not more, importance when discussing “Casino Jack”. Without Spacey, who gives his best performance in years as super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Hickenlooper’s film – which is based on a true story – wouldn’t be nearly as worthy of praise. At the same time that so many people never had a chance to see the film in theaters in the first place will thus likely skip it on home video due to the low Tomatometer rating and cold reaction by select critics who did see it at Festivals or a limited engagement in select cities, is a regrettable truth. Regrettable because of the limiting factor this puts on the amount of people who will witness Spacey’s brilliant portrayal. Either way I feel a need to contradict the statements from some critics: the film isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s quite good, if oddly satirical and tonally disconnected at times.

Such is the way of that certain brand of humor though. Many don’t understand the subtitles of satire, let alone political satire, which “Jack” most certainly is. Lest we forget that for a while certain elements of society took Stephen Colbert at face value, and people still think that Bill O’Reilly is being serious when he makes his utterly absurdist, inflammatorily provocative statements. (Wait, he really is? Oh. Oops. Anyway…) Mix the political satire with the decidedly dark sensibilities of black comedy present in “Casino Jack” and it’s understandable to a certain extent then that a few took the film to a be a celebration of the scheming Abramoff and his protégé Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper), who together scammed millions from their misrepresented Native American clientele for services decidedly not rendered. The thing is… the film doesn’t really celebrate Abramoff, who was convicted of fraud, corruption, tax evasion, and exchanging gifts for political favors and was sentenced to a six year prison sentence. What the film really does isn’t celebrate the man, but rather make a smart social commentary about Abramoff and those like him; men who think they’re good people when they really aren’t. (The film is even less “kind” to Abramoff’s partner in that it outright makes Scanlon look like a squalid, womanizing buffoon.)

The point really couldn’t be clearer. The film opens – after the awesome power of Abramoff’s “I workout everyday” monologue – in the middle of the story, with Abramoff and Scanlon both frantically trying to figure out what to do after their illegal scheme, and possible connection to a double homicide, has been exposed and Abramoff’s political contacts, including Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett) and then-President George W. Bush (Brent Mendenhall), have deserted them. Abramoff is arrested in Los Angeles while pitching the idea for a remake of “The Ten Commandments” starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, to a pair of his movie producer contacts. This is funny for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps not as funny as the fact that in real life Abramoff wrote and produced a movie starring Dolph Lundgren in the 80's (“Red Scorpion” (1988)) before moving to Washington to become an influential power player on the slippery slope of Capital Hill. Hickenlooper and screenwriter Norman Snider get to the point shortly after the arrest, as Jack sits in a holding cell. He and his seatmate discuss why they are incarcerated. Jack doesn’t think that he should be there because everything he’s convicted of was just part of his job. The cellmate, a burly man who says something about being locked up for a “chicken-shit assault charge” doesn’t think Jack should be in prison either. Because, clearly, the tattooed behemoth who’s accused of beating his wife is such a good judge of character. The camera pulls back as they both ponder what Jack could have done wrong, which gives way to a quick cut to the story several months earlier. It’s a very clever and well-done scene; just one of many clever and well-done scenes in “Casino Jack”, and it, much like Jack himself really has many layers.

Jack has trouble separating reality from fiction, and both he and perpetual fratboy Scanlon have a thing for movies and movie quotes (which is right up my alley). Jack is particularly fond of the last part, quoting and impersonating his political idol Ronnie Reagan, the crotchety Walter Matthau, Al Pacino circa The Godfather” (1972), and others at seemingly any chance he gets. Spacey is surprisingly good at aping those and other characters. His Jack also flexes his impersonation muscles with a perfect Stallone-as-Rocky-Balboa much to the chagrin of his onscreen wife played well in a few scenes by Kelly Preston. (I also saw Spacey do a superb Jon Lovitz on “Conan” last year during what I didn’t know was a promotional interview for “Casino Jack”). So imbued in pop culture and movies is Abramoff that he even dresses like Michael Corleone during his first congressional hearing. Hickenlooper and his writer use this cinematic fascination as a jumping off point for many of their outlandish and obscure plot threads, shifting the narrative increasingly into the absurd through the first part of the film.

It’s because of this absurdity that I’m unsure whether or not the film takes liberties in populating its world with a cast of colorful characters; certainly the characters are based on real people, but they were likely enhanced and made more colorful for the sake of comedy. At least I hope these are more caricature than realistic character, because the film’s DeLay comes across as a scary, blindly religious zealot, while Scanlon’s girlfriend Emily Miller (Rachelle Lefevre) is just as bad, coming across as the sort of pompous, NPR-loving liberal that gives us a bad name. The players in Abramoff’s wacky adventure include a particularly troublesome tribal councilman named Bernie Sprague (the delightful Graham Green) and a lovably fat old Italian gangster named Big Tony (played by the late Maury Chaykin) who likes to “whack” people for sport. Not the least of these awful people though is a filthy mattress salesman named Adam Kidan (a perfectly cast Jon Lovitz) whom Abramoff and Scanlon use as an intermediary to buy them a fleet of cruise-ship-based casinos. That most of the film is concerned with the acquisition of these casinos – and Jack’s repeated schemes to outwit other Indian Casino owners – should come as no surprise; both plots are where the film obviously takes its title. Lovitz’s character is as slimy as they come and he eventually gets caught up with the wrong sort of people, including a crazy Greek “businessman” who repeatedly stabs Kidan in the face with a ballpoint pen in an unexpectedly graphic, yet weirdly funny, scene of violence.

Some will likely not take to the darkly comedic nature of “Casino Jack” – the hilariously uncomfortable ballpoint pen sequence is but the tip of the iceberg – and so I won’t say that everyone needs to see this film. I also won’t say that it’s perfect, cause it’s not. Snider’s screenplay is a bit disjointed, with the first hour being considerably more enjoyable than the forced remainder, which feels inevitable and not nearly as daringly unique. “Jack” is downright predictable and Hollywood-esque by the clichéd final minutes, which is a shame. And as brilliantly conceived as most sequences are in the film, Hickenlooper makes a few mistakes towards the awkward-middle, lapsing into a strange montage which feels stylistically at odds with everything that came before it and much that comes after. But its flaws are minor, and “Casino Jack” is quite a good film. Spacey is excellent, and Barry Pepper surprised the hell out of me as the hilariously idiotic Michael Scanlon. Who knew Pepper, usually saddled with rough-n-tough macho guy parts – the pious sniper in “Saving Private Ryan”(1998), the murderous Border Patrol agent in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005), and the disgustingly-toothed cohort of Tom Chaney named “Lucky Ned” in the Coen’s superb “True Grit” (2010) – had the ability to be so funny? Pepper and Spacey are the reasons to see this film; everything else is just a delightful, welcomed, if extraneous, topping.

Video

“Casino Jack” was shot digitally with the infamous RED One Camera by cinematographer Adam Swica. His glossy, occasionally sunburned photography transfers to Blu-ray exceptionally well via a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps high definition AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer. The film looks almost stupidly good, offering tons of fine facial and object detail, nicely saturated colors, immense depth, and superb contrast. The RED, as marvelous as it occasionally seems, and it does produce stupendous results here, is apparently a bit of a dog in low light; at least for most other DP's. Swica – who previously shot two of George A. Romero’s worst films – on the other hand does the impossible, making even the dark, club atmosphere of the film’s dank cruise ship casinos, which make New Jersey nightclub look classy, look good. Excessive noise, which is usually the main problem for the RED in situations like the underlit casino scenes, isn’t an issue. Colorful, flashy and with impossibly deep and true blacks, there’s some crush in these scenes but still a lot of detail.

Luckily, most of “Casino Jack” takes place not in these sets hampered by mildly crushed shadows, but instead in the dazzling daylight of Miami, and Los Angeles, Washington DC, the lush suburbs of New England, and the expansive tribal lands of Abramoff’s Native clientele, (most of which is really just a redressed Toronto, rural Canada, and some carefully selected establishing shots shot by the second unit due to budgetary constraints) and various office interiors. The image is always sleek – and was obviously color corrected and manipulated via computer to punch up skintones, which are intentionally over-bronzed, and other elements of certain sequences, like the green grasses of a golf course that are electrically supercharged, or the blisteringly white learjets that standout on impossibly black tarmac. The various outdoor exchanges between Abramoff and Scanlon, and their latest victim about to scammed, are set against brilliantly teal skies. Natural? Perhaps not, but the Blu-ray transfer replicates the intended stylization perfectly.

There’s no noticeable grain in the image – obviously not, because Swica didn’t shoot on film – but the look of “Casino Jack” is decidedly film-like and, with the exception of a few black-and-white interludes sporadically placed throughout, the picture never takes on a distracting “videotaped” feel. Despite being confined to a single layered BD-25 there are no egregious encoding flaws: ugly artifacts, severe instances of banding, and any other sort of general compression fault are absent. Coming from a digital source, the image is free of dirt, debris and damage. No examples of DNR or edge enhancement standout. The few moments of black-crush aside this is pretty much a perfect Blu-ray presentation.

Audio

Jonathan Goldsmith really is the most interesting man in the world. Not only does he play that ridiculous role in the Dos Equis beer commercials; he’s a composer to boot. And a pretty good, quirky one, if his work, which play prominently in “Jack’s” English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) track, is any indication. The Blu-ray sounds a little less exceptional than it looks, but still manages to earn quite an impressive rating. And Goldsmith’s cha-cha-y, Jazz infused score, as the mixes clear standout, is why. No explosions, big action set pieces, or even a ton of atmospheric locales are to be had in “Jack”, but what the film lacks in pure aural vigorousness it makes up for with solid, clear dialogue, and that wonderfully warm and lively score. Some surprisingly competent directionality and surround use with planes during Abramoff’s various spats with Scanlon at an airfield doesn’t hurt either. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are available.

Extras

And here is where the Blu-ray release of “Casino Jack” falls apart – the film and A/V can only go so far. While the single-layered BD-25 isn’t completely devoid of extras, and some of the extras are even worthwhile, it’s certainly a real shame that the film isn’t supported by a stronger supplemental package. A documentary or commentary with Spacey, writer Norman Snider, and the other producers (director George Hickenlooper sadly died two months before “Jack’s” premiere) would certainly have helped matters along. Heck, even a few short featurettes would have sufficed. But, unfortunately, no – none of that is offered. On top of an over-produced gag reel, six deleted scenes, and an interactive photo gallery the disc includes few pre-menu bonus trailers, and bookmark and resume playback functions round off the disc. Supplements are encoded in a mix of high definition and standard definition.

“Casino Jack: A Director’s Photo Gallery” (1080p, 50 images) is an interactive image gallery which houses a series of behind-the-scenes photographs taken on the set of the film. The photos can be viewed either as a slideshow or individually via a browse tab, with or without enlightening text commentary from director George Hickenlooper. Excerpts from Jonathan Goldsmith’s score provide musical backing for the pictures. The slideshow with text commentary makes this for a pretty decent extra.

A gag reel (16x9 480p, 8 minutes 25 seconds) collects a number of line slips, flubs and goofs, and presents them in a typically overproduced fashion. This extra starts off harmless enough but, like most blooper reels, runs on for far too long, making what was at first mildly amusing an absolute bore. Actors make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes are funny. That doesn’t mean we need to see every single one edited into a hapless montage.

Next, six deleted scenes (16x9 480p, 9 minutes 4 seconds) are mostly just meandering extensions and nonessential material rightfully cut before the final release. Scenes include: Jack’s extended Hollywood movie pitch, a longer bit at the Harvard Young Republican rally, a lengthened speech by Bernie Sprague, an Abramoff office freak-out, and a different take on the opening mirror monologue.

Four bonus trailers auto-play before the menu. The non-sequel sequel “Street Kings 2: Motor City” (1080p, 32 seconds) looks awful – what the hell happened to Ray Liotta? More exciting and worth checking out are trailers for “Mao’s Last Dancer” (1080p, 2 minutes 27 seconds), the indie-comedy “Cedar Rapids” (1080p, 2 minutes 29 seconds) and Darren Aronofsky’s exquisite “Black Swan” (1080p, 2 minutes 9 seconds).

Overall

“Casino Jack” received a lot of criticism when it was released in theaters – as such, it has an abysmal rating on the Tomatometer rating – but I think the film isn’t nearly as jumbled, weak-plotted, or tonally inconsistent as its detractors suggest. The film is flawed but it’s also an at-times brilliant satire, and an absurdly funny black comedy: two things people generally have a hard time digesting, hence, I think, the negative skew. Kevin Spacey gives his best performance in years as the arrogant Jack Abramoff and he has an equally alluring supporting cast behind him (when did Barry Pepper become funny?). The technical aspects of this release are even more impressive: Fox’s Blu-ray features amazing video and strong lossless audio. Extras are a disappointment but, overall, I think “Casino Jack” should be given a chance. At the very least it deserves a rental.

The Film: B Video: A Audio: B Extras: D Overall: B-

 


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