3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, based on true events
Opens locally Friday, January 7th, 2011, Rated R
Run Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz
Directed by George Hickenlooper
"Casino Jack" is in reference to real "super-lobbyist" Jack Abramoff, and shows the little known but highly influential world of political lobbying in Washington. Before digging into the film itself, let's pause for some background...The film's director, George Hickenlooper, tragically died this past October from a sudden heart-attack at the age of 47. He was best known for his 1991 documentary "Hearts of Darkness" which chronicled the making of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. He made numerous documentaries and when he did make dramatic movies, they often centered on real-life people and stories. This leads us to "Casino Jack", his final film, which follows the trend of dramatic movie centering on real-life events.
"Casino Jack" the film by Hickenlooper is not to be confused with a documentary that was recently released called, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." In this latter film, we get a true documentary on Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist and businessman who was at the heart of an extensive corruption investigation that led to the downfall of several White House officials, fellow lobbyists, and most notable U.S. Representative Bob Ney. Abramoff was eventually convicted in 2006 and served time in prison before being released this past December. Before this downfall, Jack Abramoff was on top of the world, and considered one of the most influential people in Washington.
I suggest renting or finding the documentary and watching it as a suppliment to "Casino Jack" the movie. In the documentary, Abramoff is clearly villainized by the filmmaker as an example of how power can corrupt. The new film paints Jack as less of a villain, but doesn't shy away from the illegal activities he was associated with. He got the nickname "Casino Jack" since he represented a number of Indian tribes in the U.S. with gambling interests: he would go on to defeat many attempts by U.S. officials to tax Indian casinos, and later learned how to extort them.
The latest film presents the story of Jack Abramoff with a quirky comedic tone, and sees Abramoff and his partner-in-crime Michael Scanlon (Pepper) in a sympathetic light....These are corrupt bad guys that the movie somehow makes seem light and fluffy, as if these were guys you would want to hang out with. In real life, Abramoff was known for his love of movies and quoting of different films...he was the real life producer of 2 Dolph Lundgren films, Red Scorpion and Red Scorpion 2. Jon Lovitz is in the film playing...Jon Lovitz, as he can play nobody else better. His sleazy, cowardly con man gives the film it's funnier moments.
Interestingly, the film shows Abramoff as having good intentions in many of these crooked deals...not sure if these intentions are founded in real-life findings or simply the intent of the filmmakers to portray him in a good-as-possible light. I personally was helped by having seen the documentary first...as many of the consequences of Abramoff's actions are better represented in the documentary. Here, people are hurt, even killed, and yet the movie bounces around as if it were Jim Carrey comedy.
But Spacey gives a good performance and the movie does entertain, ultimately suffering from a too straight-and-narrow script. I was never a fan of characters telling us what they do or what they are all about...I would much rather learn about them through their actions or the decisions we see them make. Many lines in the film are stilted and are there for us to learn more about Abramoff and what he has been through...and a lot of it misses the mark. Still, it is compelling to see a dramatization of these very real events, even if they are shown through rose-colored glasses.
Casino Jack doesn't resonate as an important film, and is not nearly a great one, but there is enough interesting and enjoyable stuff here worth gambling on. When you need to see another film though in order to put this film in context, it exposes the film's flaws and leaves you feeling a bit disappointed that you spent a few hours not really learning much about Jack Abramoff then you probably already knew going in.
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