When you hear the term “casino film,” there are probably some specific scenes that come to mind: Robert de Niro strolling along a Vegas casino floor, Matt Damon in a poker duel in a makeshift back room casino, or even Clive Owen conducting croupier duties. You may picture Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid,” or James Caan in “The Gambler.” You may even think first of Paul Newman in “The Hustler,” even though that’s more a gambling film than specifically one involving casinos.
These are the iconic figures, scenes, and films of the genre. We hear “casino film” and think immediately of high-stakes situations, and of A-list stars portraying troubled or addicted gamblers. In these situations, the casinos are absolutely vital and indispensable to the plots of the films. But while Hollywood still churns out a casino film now and then, it’s become clear that in the 21st century, the relationship between movies and casino gaming has changed a great deal.
Yes, there are still some classic casino films being made; one can even make an argument that 2003’s “The Cooler,” which stars William H. Macy, is among the most underrated in the entire genre. But for the most part, a casino film in modern culture simply means a thriller that happens to take place in a casino as opposed to a film entirely about the struggles and games connected to the gambling industry. Take, for instance, “Ocean’s 11” and “Casino Royale,” arguably the two most famous casino-related movies of the past 15 years. In “Ocean’s 11,” we hardly see a chip being dealt despite the fact most of the movie takes place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (and in fact, the films’ IMDB page shows that it really was the Bellagio where these scenes were filmed). The movie is about a heist, not a casino. While the casino is central to the plot, the sequels to “Ocean’s 11” demonstrated that the same characters ca
n just as easily be involved in heists elsewhere. Similarly, Casino Royale Daniel Craig’s first James Bond film uses a very high-stakes poker game as a sort of sideshow to greater intrigue. Yes, they’re playing cards in a casino, but the real action is going on in the winks and whispers exchanged between secret agents, in the poison being dropped in a cocktail. The casino is an afterthought.
If the connection between film and casinos has changed on the big screen, however, it’s actually strengthened in an intriguing way outside of the cinema. While casinos have always invited the concept of themed games with built-in audiences, the rise of the online casino industry has brought with it a wave of cinema-inspired gaming options that in some ways are dominating online platforms. The betfair casino, one of the most established industry brands in Europe, showcases dozens of examples in this regard, with slot machine games based on films ranging from “Rocky,” to “Ghost Rider,” to all of Marvel’s Avengers’ various movies. Typically, these games do more than just use a title of a popular character. In many cases, they actually make use of specific images and musical themes from the films in order to enhance the gaming experiences. So while these movies aren’t part of the casino film genre as we typically think of it, they’ve actually come to represent some of the closest ties between casino gaming and cinema in the 21st century.
And then, of course, there’s the combination of the two: films that still make use of casinos, but which also tap into the online gaming craze that’s giving casinos a new feel for a new generation. Films like these have yet to gain a sub-genre all of their own, though 2013’s “Runner Runner” may have helped to break through as the first major Hollywood movie to use online gambling as its main subject matter. To be clear, this film flopped critically, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone even went as far as to call it a “Casino” ripoff and it was seen as something of a step backward for stars Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck. But the fact remains that someone made an entire movie about an online gambling empire and the criminal activity surrounding it. Given the aforementioned failure of modern casino films to actually involve their casinos very much, as well as the craze for casino gaming online, this feels like a glimpse of the future, if the casino film genre is to endure.