There are two kinds of conflicts Hollywood can’t get enough of: the gun-wielding showdown between hero and villain in the final minutes, and the more drawn-out and subtle but no less deadly contest that is waged around a poker table.
The classics: best 60s and 70s casino movies
A classic card game of equal parts risk, skill and wit, poker scenes have been keeping us on the edge of our seats since well before a young Steve McQueen went after high-roller Lancey Howard in 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid. The very next year saw Joanne Woodward pulling off a double bluff in A Big Hand for the Little Lady (spoiler alert: the lady is a swindler), and in 1973 Paul Newman and Robert Redford teamed up for The Sting, and turned cheating (both at and away from the poker table) into box office gold.
Onwards and upwards: best casino movies of the 90s
The thrill and tension of a poker game, often heightened by a win-or-lose plot about a hero with his back against the wall, is a script that almost writes itself. But the casino as a backdrop to do-or-die movie moments truly came into its own in the mid-90s, in the violent but brilliant Martin Scorsese drama, Casino. It had DeNiro, gangsters and Las Vegas plus Sharon Stone in an Oscar-nominated performance; what more could a poker-loving movie-goer want? Since you’re asking, here are some ideas.
Matt Damon may not be the most dangerous opponent at the poker table (he rarely wins), Mike McDermott, his character from the 1998 cult classic Rounders may very well be. With his less fortunate and less honest best mate Lester “Worm” Murphy (Edward Norton), he enters the world of high-stakes poker games to pay off a debt owed to “Teddy”, a Russian mobster played John Malkovich at his scary best. Although initial reception was lukewarm, the poker boom that followed made it a must-watch for casino movie enthusiasts.
Also in 1998, saw Clive Owen play Jack, an aspiring writer-turned-card dealer delving into the underbelly of the gambling world in search of what could be a great novel. The movie launched Owen’s career and no surprise, as he expertly portrays the complexity of Jack the writer and Jack the ruthless croupier bent making sure the house takes every cent. Anyone familiar with the inside of a casino will vouch for the movie’s authenticity, and the double sting at the end makes it well worth watching.
Modern masterpieces: best casino movies of the 2000s
Ruthless mobsters and the perils of being caught cheating are recurring casino-movie themes, but they’re seldom portrayed better than in 2003’s The Cooler, starring William H. Macey, Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin. It has a clever plot that centers on down-at-heel Bernie Lootz (Macey) being deployed as a “cooler” – someone whose bad luck rubs off on the punters he hangs around with. Jinxing players is Bernie’s way of working off a debt to casino boss Shelley Kaplow (Baldwin), but the game’s up when Bernie falls in love and his bad luck turns into a lucky charm. Another insider story like Croupier, this movie adds romance and redemption to a must-see for gambling and film enthusiasts.
For the ultimate “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” casino movie experience, you can’t beat 2009’s The Hangover, which has the added advantage of being laugh-out-loud funny, and in Ocean’s Eleven Steven Soderbergh rounds up a star-studded cast for the quintessential casino heist movie. For a more poignant look at what happens at the tables, there’s the 1988 classic, Rain Man, in which a selfish businessman takes his autistic savant brother to Las Vegas with the intention of using his gift to win big at blackjack. The combination of a young Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman alone makes this one worth watching.
Finally, the list isn’t complete with mentioning the very classy . One of the top 10 films of 2006, this casino classic sees James Bond playing a poker game in order to save the world. The stakes don’t get much higher than that!
If you want to recreate the drama and excitement of Hollywood’s famous casino scenes at home, you don’t have to head to Beverly Hills to do so – in fact, with the number of online games and casino games on mobile phones these days, you can get all the thrill with the comfort of indoor fun in your own home.