No one portrays smarmy arrogance better than Kevin Spacey, who at his best lets the audience see behind the bluster and peek at the vulnerabilities behind that arrogance and smarm.
The obvious example of this was in “The Usual Suspects,” when the crippled Verbal Kint leaves the police station and takes his infamous walk down the street, his limp subsiding, his head straightening out, his arm free at his side and his frightened eyes becoming ice cold. With “Casino Jack,” Spacey finally has found another role worthy of that particular talent, and judging by the way he tears into the part, he knows it.
Casino Jack is, of course, Jack Abramoff, who has access to the most powerful political men on the planet, but he’s not happy with where he is in his life. He wants his own empire, something akin to the Kennedys or the Bushes. So, even knowing it’s wrong, he jumps in bed with the Mob as a way of getting into the South Florida’s casino business, where he begins to build his empire.
The problem is, any involvement with the Mob brings a price, and eventually the two worlds he has been inhabiting -- politics and organized crime – go on a collision course that could have impact all the way to the White House. What can he do to work his way out of the mess he created without it costing him his life?
Spacey is brilliant as a man who took enormous risks for one simple reason: vanity. The look of desperation on his face as he realizes what could happen to him is priceless, but more than that, Spacey allows the audience to see his vulnerability. We get the brash operator, we like him, and we understand what he is doing when it all begins to fall apart and places him in genuine danger.
It felt good to see Spacey back relishing a role – after movies like “Pay It Forward” and the Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea” -- knowing he was in the groove, knowing he was nailing virtually every scene, feeding off the other actors as they feed off him.
Of the strong cast surrounding Spacey, Barry Pepper gives the best performance, as spin doctor Michael Scanlon, the man with all the answers who works with Abramoff to keep the nastiness of their scheme out of the news yet knows they are doomed to failure. Pepper has been knocking around looking for the right role since his part as the deadly sniper in “Saving Private Ryan,” and this could be it. He more than holds his own against Spacey, and the two of them bounce off one another with a comfort that comes from 20 years of working together -- which they clearly do not have.
And comic Jon Lovitz was a pleasant surprise as the Mob-connected partner, who helps Abramoff at the beginning, then wants his piece and eventually becomes more and more dangerous.
The film was directed by George Hickenlooper, a former documentarian with a knack for establishing the atmosphere for his actors to work within. His meticulous research of this subject was aided by Spacey himself, as the two men poured over every aspect of the real Abramoff story, wanting to bring it to the screen with absolute homesty.
His handling of the film is assured and strong, but perhaps his greatest achievement is making the subject matter accessible, dramatic and often very funny. Political films can be dry and dull, but not this one.