Casinos have been at the forefront of mainstream culture for more than a century, and iconic gambling establishments have been represented, or alluded to, many times in Hollywood blockbusters. Sometimes casinos are portrayed as hubs of glitz and glamor, whilst other times, the darker underbelly of gambling is exposed.
Time and time again, the casino mise-en-scene is used across many genres, from comedies featuring A-listers in the hustle and bustle of a fun-filled Las Vegas spree to tense showdowns over the poker table between literary icons and their antagonists. It’s perhaps no surprise that some of the most acclaimed moments in cinema have taken place on a casino floor or against the backdrop of extravagant, notable buildings like the Bellagio.
If you love betting on live casino games, you’ll most likely enjoy watching films about them as well. Here’s our rundown of the top five casino movies of all time.
#5 – Rain Man
Rain Man is not a dedicated casino movie, which revolves solely around the ins and outs of gambling, but it had to be included in this list because it has one of the most iconic casino scenes of all time. Indeed, Rain Man often makes it into top casino movie lists because of the memorable card counting scene, in which Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond uses his enhanced abilities to win at live dealer blackjack.
In Barry Levinson’s iconic 1988 release, Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt and Hoffman’s Raymond venture off on a road trip across the USA. It’s one of Hollywood’s classic buddy films, as the two characters learn to love each other over the course of the adventure. Of course, for lovers of casino games, it’s the scene at the blackjack tables that stands out.
The two protagonists travel to Las Vegas with a scheme to use Raymond’s skills to win at blackjack. It turns out that he can count cards, and this drastically increases their chances of winning: they end up walking out with $86,000. Many films have been set in casinos over the years, but Rain Man was famously one of the first to be shot inside a real gambling establishment. The picture used Caesars’ Palace in Las Vegas and gave viewers a taste of what the inside of such an epic casino looked like.
#4 – 21
There’s no doubt that the card counting scene was one of the highlights of Rain Man, and people who relished that will love Robert Luketic’s 21. The 2008 movie goes into much greater detail on the intricacies of this skill and takes viewers on a journey to Las Vegas casinos with a group of highly talented mathematicians. It stars Jim Sturgess as the protagonist, alongside Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, and Kevin Spacey.
21 is based on Ben Mezrich’s iconic blackjack book, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. It looks into the events leading up to the MIT Blackjack Team’s success at the tables of Vegas and Atlantic City in the 1990s. The 2003 release is described as non-fiction, but all the characters have pseudonyms to protect the identities of their real-world counterparts. In addition, there are elements within it that are embellished and exaggerated.
If you want to get a rundown of how card counting methods work, 21 provides some crystal-clear instructions. However, knowing how to do it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to pull it off. Indeed, when you play live dealer casino games, you can get in trouble if someone thinks you’re card counting. This happens to the characters in the movie, and that’s where the main tension and excitement is built for spectators. 21 did moderately well upon its release but has become a cult classic among casino players in the years since.
#3 – Casino Royale
Ask any James Bond fan to list their favorite outings featuring the legendary spy, and Casino Royale is bound to be up there. The first Daniel Craig offering from Martin Campbell is widely considered to be one of the greatest 007 adventures, and it was also the highest-grossing one before Skyfall hit cinemas in 2012. The 2006 title brought in $616 million worldwide and was praised for its reinvention of the character. Craig went on to star in four other Bond films before calling it a day with No Time to Die last year.
Most of Casino Royale takes place in the opulent fictional casino of the same name, set in Montenegro. For the setting, Campbell opted to use real-world locations with some intricate set design weaved in as well. Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic was the setting for the gambling house, with its Grandhotel Pupp acting as Casino Royale. It’s hard to think of a film that has included a more extravagant gambling house than the one used here.
As for the gambling scenes in Casino Royale, the picture focuses solely on Texas Hold’em poker. The original novel by Ian Fleming centers on a high-stakes game of baccarat. However, because the 2006 movie was released at the height of the poker boom, Campbell thought Hold’em would be more relatable to viewers at the time. This proved to be correct as well, and the film was lauded by poker fans. Granted, the final scene in which everyone at the table is holding a ‘monster hand’ is unrealistic and would never happen in real life, but it does create incredible tension.
#2 – Ocean’s Eleven
Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s 11 in 1960 starring the Rat Pack was the first film to use the name and theme, but it was Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake that went on to have a greater impact on popular culture. Indeed, the film starring George Clooney and Matt Damon raked in $450 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing remake ever at the time. It led to a sprawling franchise, including two direct sequels and a recent female-led reboot.
Ocean’s Eleven is a comedy heist film set in Las Vegas, featuring shots of some of the most iconic casinos in the world. The Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand are the three main settings in the picture, and the storyline revolves around an audacious heist of the three gambling houses. While the movie doesn’t use gambling as a central theme, the settings are hugely important and there are plenty of high-stakes scenes. The varying camera angles and slick editing allow viewers to get caught up in the action, with a sense that they’re on the casino floor with the thieves.
The great thing about Ocean’s Eleven is that, if you enjoy it and want more, you can move on to Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen, which were released in 2004 and 2007, respectively. The second offering moves away from Vegas and uses a few other locations, but the third sees the gang return to The Strip for another smart scheme. Then, there’s the recently released Ocean’s 8, which hit screens in 2018. It received positive reviews and was successful at the box office, but it didn’t include a casino theme. Instead, it focused on a heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
#1 – Casino
Would this be a list of the best casino films ever without Martin Scorsese’s Casino? We think not. The 1995 epic crime drama from the legendary director of Goodfellas, The Departed, and Raging Bull is the definitive casino movie. It gives viewers a detailed depiction of the mechanisms that make a gambling house tick, from the players on the casino floor to the security personnel keeping tabs on the cameras. You get a true sense of what it would be like to run a bustling casino, and the immersive direction makes you feel as if you are there amid the action.
Casino was based on the Nicholas Pileggi book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, which was a true story about the historic involvement of the mob in the Nevada gambling hotspot. Robert De Niro played the role of Sam “Ace” Rothstein, who was based on the real-life figure of Frank Rosenthal. Joe Pesci starred as the made man Nicky Santoro, a character inspired by Anthony Spilotro.
Sharon Stone completed the A-list trio as Ginger McKenna, who was based on the dancer and socialite, Geri McGee. Stone was lauded for her performance and earned a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture.
For fans of Goodfellas, Casino would be considered the spiritual follow-up. It isn’t a sequel, but it is highly similar with many of the same themes throughout. A lot of people think Pesci was the highlight of the 1990 picture, and Casino gave viewers another chance to enjoy the actor as a psychopathic Italian gangster.
If you want to immerse yourself in casinos as much as possible, the best way is to go online and play live dealer online casino games. When you’re having a break from those, you can check out some of the top casino movies for another way to experience the bustling gambling houses.