Hollywood has often turned to the world of casino and gambling for inspiration in its movies. Some have gambling as the focus of the film, others take a broader look at the gambling industry and in other films, gambling is used as a way for the villain to snatch the loot, as well as the hero to put the bad guy in his place.
There are many different types of casino-related films to enjoy that range from biopics of some of the most famous gamblers in history, down to films about how the mafia’s influence stretched into the world of casino gaming many years ago.
With so many films linked to casinos and gaming of some kind, narrowing down the ones that every casino gamer should watch is a tough task, but we’ve attempted to do precisely that here!
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)
There are many cautionary tales available to watch about gambling but A.W.Vidmer’s docu-drama is perhaps one of the most interesting and relevant. It tells the amazing story of poker legend Stu Ungar, the first man ever to win three WSOP Main Events tournament in the history of the World Series of Poker.
In the film Ungar is played by Michael Imperioli, who is more famous perhaps for playing Tony Soprano’s troublesome nephew Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos, and it is a warts-and-all tale that explores the rise of Ungar to the top of the poker world and his eventual downfall, chefly due to huge losses incurred when betting on horse races.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
This Norman Jewison directed film starred Steve McQueen in the titular role as a young poker star trying to make his way in the game during the Great Depression. Willing to “take on anyone, at anything, anytime”, the film starred Edward G. Robinson as Poker legend Lancey Howard whom the Kid must face in a winner-takes-all High Stakes game.
A stellar cast that also included Rip Torn, Cab Calloway, Karl Malden and Ann-Margret helped elevate the film as one of the classics of the genre and it remains one of Steve McQueen’s most famous roles.
Ever dreamed of getting the better of a casino? In Ben Mezrich’s book “Bringing Down The House The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas For Millions” you get to learn about precisely how these youngsters managed to do that.
Robert Luketic’s 2008 film 21 is based on that book and shows how the team managed to use their skills to count cards at blackjack to win millions. However, it is also a tale of how greed and the thirst for more eventually proved to be their downfall.
While not entirely accurate (the MIT team had around 80 different students operating from the late 1970s to mid 1990s), it is still a hugely interesting story of how casinos were, initially, beaten.
When Martin Scorsese puts his name to a project, you know that the end result is likely to be a classic and Casino is a fantastic example of this. His screenplay of Nicholas Pileggi’s book, tells the story of a casino enforcer, played by Robert De Niro and a mafia lynchpin, played by the superb Joe Pesci, clash over a gambling empire at the heart of Las Vegas.
Set in the 1970s and 80s, the films cast includes Sharon Stone, James Woods, Don Rickles and Alan King. At almost three-hours in duration, it is a long and at times, brutal watch, but there is no denying the quality of Scorsese’s work both cinematically and as a fictionalised version of how the mob were involved in Vegas during the 70s and 80s.
Casino Royale (2006)
For Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond, director Martin Campbell went back to the first of Ian Fleming’s books. Casino Royale uses Fleming’s love of gambling and casino games as the basis for a battle between the new 007 agent, James Bond and the villain of the piece, Le Chiffre, a private banker who secretly funds international terrorism through his winnings from poker (although in the original story, the game played was baccarat).
With Judi Dench playing M and characters such as Vesper Lynd and Felix Leiter making their first appearance in the Bond universe, the performances of Craig and Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Le Chiffre, are superb and lead to a hugely satisfying climax at the poker table.
The House (2017)
Who says all Casino or gambling related films have to be serious? In The House, Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler star as the parents of Alex Johansen (Ryan Simpkins), who was given a place at Buckley University in the belief her parents could find her education. Money that her parents do not have.
To raise the funds for their daughter to go to university, the couple, with the help of their neighbour, start an illegal casino in their friends home to try and raise the money she needs to attend the fictional Buckley University. Hilarity ensues as they try to raise the money while dealing with interested police, gambling cheaters and more.
Owning Mahowny (2003)
Starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as well as Minnie Driver and John Hurt, Owning Mahowny is another cautionary tale of how gambling can spin out of control, even for seemingly the most staid and sensible in our society.
Dan Mahowny is a bank manager who looks after some of Canada’s wealthiest bank accounts. Unknown to his employers, Mahowny also has a gambling problem and when he starts to lose money, the funds in the accounts he has access to start to become all the more attractive.
While maintaining the charade of a friendly assistant manager of a major bank in Toronto, a quiet man who enjoyed sports to his friends and shy but engaging to his girlfriend, Mahowny committed the largest single-handed case of bank fraud in Canadian history, stealing over $10 million across 18 months in order to fund his gambling habit.
There are plenty of other great films about gambling, or in which gambling is a key theme. Maverick, Rounders, The Gambler, The Goof Thief, Casino Jack, the Oceans Eleven series of films and Honeymoon in Vegas are just some of the others that are worth a look if you like your Hollywood films with a gambling twist!