Known as the “entertainment capital of the world”, Las Vegas makes for a jaw-dropping background in dozens of notable film projects. The whole Sin City ordeal is irresistible, from bedazzled shows and glorious casinos to the spectacular night lights and lavish hotels. An ideal setting for all sorts of genres, Las Vegas was the location of various cinema classics, numerous action flicks, multiple sentimental dramas, as well as several successful romantic comedies. With its larger-than-life reputation and charm, isn’t Las Vegas simply made for movies?
Let’s take a look at some of the most memorable films in which Las Vegas had an opportunity to shine on the silver screen just as much as their main protagonists.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Directed by Terry Gilliam, an eccentric artist made famous by his animations for the British comedy sketch series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is based on Hunter S. Thompson’s book of the same name. The notorious gonzo journalist gave a wildly toxic portrait of Vegas in his book, and the same atmosphere dominates the cinematic adaptation as well. The flick stars Johnny Depp as Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke, and Benicio Del Toro as his psychopathic Samoan lawyer, Dr Gonzo. The duo, well supplied with opiates and hallucinogens, drive through the desert to get to Sin City, where the journalist is supposed to cover the Mint 500 race. Once in Vegas, they are rarely off drugs. As a result, they experience the “entertainment capital of the world” like no one ever did – filled with hallucinatory grotesques, feverish episodes, lots of mindless mumbling and empty-headed characters. Quite the opposite of the promised American Dream.
The crew spend 56 days shooting in Nevada and had permits to film inside the casinos only between the hours of 2 am – 6 am. The movie features the now defunct Stardust Resort and Casino and the Le Bistro Lounge at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. The Bazooko Circus Casino showcased in the film was modelled closely after the Circus Circus Casino. This particular casino refused to be involved in the production in any way, even though it was mentioned in the original book.
If you ever had any interest in card counting or the arts of mastering a blackjack strategy, 21 is just the right movie for you. The plot is based on real-life facts; there were indeed teams of MIT students active between 1979 and 1994 who were trained to become experts in card counting and subsequently earned millions in winnings in Las Vegas casinos playing at the blackjack tables. The movie focuses on Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess), a young and intelligent Boston University student who wants a scholarship to transfer to Harvard School of Medicine. He cannot afford his dream, so he joins a secretive club of five led by his unorthodox math professor Micky Rosa, played by Kevin Spacey. They train in the skill of card counting at blackjack and Ben grows fond of this idea since it could bring him money. Secret trips to Las Vegas follow; they take on multiple casinos and win hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ben’s morality and limits are tested in a series of intrigues, and by the end we get to see whether he was consumed by greed or if he perhaps discovered something worth more than money.
Various scenes in 21 are filmed at Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Riviera Hotel & Casino, Red Rock Resort, Venetian Hotel and Playboy Club, among other locations. In this “history vs. Hollywood” story, the Las Vegas locations are 100% authentic.
It may come as a shock to you, but Las Vegas has a notoriously seedy mob history. The Vegas mafia involvement in the casino businesses during the 20th century was explored in a non-fiction book by Nicholas Pileggi. This very book served as the basis for the award-winning crime drama Casino directed by Martin Scorsese, released in 1995. The film follows fictional characters played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. They are joined by Sharon Stone in her prime, and together they are a trio made in heaven, or better said, in a gangster’s paradise. A mobster, a gambler and a hooker take on the corrupt and decadent Vegas of the 1970s and a tale of greed, deception, money, power, and murder unveils before our eyes.
Las Vegas is featured in the movie Casino a total of 33 times. In all honesty, the film does go on for 2h and 58 minutes, so there’s plenty of time to showcase some of the most remarkable locations in the city. The production mostly centred on the Riviera Hotel and Casino. Some scenes were also filmed at the Bally’s Casino Resort, but the movie also features other Vegasy locations that are not necessarily casinos – Main Street Station, Oscar’s Steakhouse at the Plaza Hotel, Atomic Liquors, Piero’s Italian Cuisine and the old Federal Courthouse (now the Mob Museum).
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
From writer-director Andrew Bergman comes Honeymoon in Vegas, a light screwball comedy starring Nicolas Cage, James Caan and Sarah Jessica Parker as a private investigator “scared-of-marriage” Jack Singer, a wealthy professional gambler Tommy Korman and delightful Singer’s girlfriend Betsy. Jack vowed to his mother never to marry, but he breaks his promise and elopes with his loving girlfriend to get married Vegas-style. Before they could get to one of those little instant-wedding chapels, Caan’s character interferes and demands to spend the weekend with Betsy who reminds him of his late wife. The two men gamble for the girl, and, of course, the seasoned gambler arranges for Jack to lose $65K in a poker game. The only way his debt could be cleared is for him to allow Betsy to spend the weekend with Korman. For some, Honeymoon in Vegas is an engaging romantic comedy; for others, is it an example of Cage’s audaciously unglamorous and consistently agitated performance for which he will become known in the years to come.
As they arrive in Sin City, the happy couple checks into Bally’s hotel and all the casino scenes were filmed on location, at Bally’s Casino Resort on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Yes, this one is also filmed in Vegas and yes, it also stars Nicolas Cage. However, this is a completely different movie despite being a romantic drama with moments of comedic relief. Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood screenwriter who let his life deteriorate and lost everything because of his alcoholism. Desperate, the bloke arrives in Las Vegas to drink himself silly and contemplate suicide. There, he meets Sera, a prostitute played by Elisabeth Shue, and they form an unlikely bond. Ben moves in with Sera because he wants someone to share his misery, a companion. In Ben, Sera finds a man who could care for her and end her loneliness. For his nuanced depiction of a broken man in Leaving Las Vegas, Cage won his first Oscar.
The director Mike Figgis admitted that the lack of funds was the main reason why the level of authenticity in the movie was so high and why the grim side of Las Vegas was so faithfully portrayed. Since they couldn’t shut down the Strip and they didn’t have permits specific street scenes, they filmed everything as is and tried to wrap it up in one take. Leaving Las Vegas features Bally’s Casino Resort, Flamingo Hotel, Excalibur Hotel and Casino, Circus Circus Hotel & Casino and several other venues on the Las Vegas Boulevard South.
Whether they depict the city as an unrefined jungle or a dazzling and polished Garden of Eden, Las Vegas movies are never a dull experience, for sure.