There’s something about Las Vegas that has always made it a place of great fascination for filmmakers. One of the main reasons has to be the way it looks – quite unlike anywhere else on earth. With the flashing signs that can be picked out by orbiting spacecraft and the sheer investment that has gone into creating this amazing oasis in the heart of the Nevada Desert it’s a film set that’s already been built.
The fact that it’s only a relatively short distance from Hollywood itself – an hour by plane – is also strongly in its favour as a location. Plus, it’s the kind of place that can be used for all kinds of movies, as these five prime examples only go to show.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Anyone who read the Hunter S. Thompson classic when it was originally written in 1971 may well have wondered how it could ever have been turned into a movie. Yes, it took 27 years to reach the screen but it did end up being a cult classic. It took the visionary genius of Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, to create the film that tells the story of its central character Raoul Duke and his lawyer Doctor Gonzo as they go on a drug-fuelled journey to Vegas to explore the failed American Dream.
While it didn’t exactly get a rapturous welcome by the critics - there is a Fear and Loathing review here – it soon found quite a following despite its hallucinatory quality and the rambling plot that really takes the form of a series of unrelated episodes.
When director Stephen Soderbergh agreed to remake the Rat Pack classic Ocean’s 11 starring Frank Sinatra et al. with the new cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia and Julia Roberts, little did he realise that it would soon turn into a mini-franchise.
In many ways the 2001 version is a classic heist movie given a modern twist as Danny Ocean (Clooney) sets about putting together a crack team to pull off a $160 million robbery of the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. But it’s given an extra layer of depth by the fact that his ex-wife Jess, played by Roberts, is now the partner of the casinos’ owner, Terry Benedict (Garcia). So there’s plenty for the viewer to enjoy, going from the putting together of the crack team to the heist itself - and it’s certainly the best of the Ocean’s series.
Leaving Las Vegas
For a complete change of tone, one only has to look at the 1995 movie written and directed by Mike Figgis. Loosely based on a semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien, it tells the story of a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter Ben Sanderson, played by Nicolas Cage. In the movie’s opening scene we see him burning all of his possessions before heading off on a road trip to Las Vegas where he intends to drink himself to death.
Saviour, of a sort, arrives in the form of a sex-worker who we know just as Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, who tries to help Sanderson out of his downward spiral. The tragic story is given extra poignancy by the Vegas backdrop where we see others enjoying themselves while our central character’s life gradually unravels.
On a far lighter note, the fun-loving side of Las Vegas is exploited to the full in many people’s favourite comedy of the last decade. Vegas is a notorious location for stag weekends but very few become quite as unruly as this one. As anyone who’s seen the film knows, it’s also part mystery story as the characters awake after a raucous night and gradually try to piece together exactly what had happened the night before.
With not just a baby in their hotel room but a chicken and a tiger too, not to mention one of the room’s mattresses impaled on a statue outside Caesars Palace, there’s a great deal of unravelling to do. Bringing in numerous classic Vegas themes including celebrities, gangsters and gambling, it’s no wonder that it was so popular that it even spawned two sequels.
Following the incredible success of Goodfellas, it was hard to know where Martin Scorsese would be able to go to top his mafia-themed movies. But then along came Casino. While it doesn’t have the scope of his most recent epic, the insanely long The Irishman, it’s been hailed as the best crime movie ever made about Las Vegas. Starring Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone it’s set in 1973 when organised crime was starting to lose its grip on Las Vegas casinos and the big corporations were starting to take over.
It contains all the classic Scorsese themes as well as the usual level of casual brutality as the mob tries, unsuccessfully to remain in control. As a historical record of the time of true transition for the city, it’s hard to beat.
Naturally, there are many more that could make this list from Viva Las Vegas to Diamonds Are Forever. But however good others may believe they are, these five are simply the best.