If you cannot make it to Vegas in person this year you can still visit the city vicariously through the magic of movies. And there are several television shows that are set in Vegas, too. But movies add a certain feel to the experience that weekly TV shows miss.
Now some movies (and shows) that claim to be set in or about Las Vegas don’t evoke that fun, fantasy feeling I get whenever I drop into town. It’s one thing to be chased by a vampire down the Strip but the typical crime drama leaves something out.
In browsing the vast library of cinematic productions about Las Vegas I sought for films that were fun, daring, and which celebrated the magic of Vegas in their own ways.
I’ve ranked them here from schlockiest to best. Some are more dramatic than others. Some are all about the laughs.
If you’re missing the casinos and the ka-ching of the slot machines in the background I’m sure there is an ambient casino background noise video on YouTube. But for those of you who want some action with the pinging machines, I offer the following list of movies.
7 – Viva Las Vegas
This is probably the most famous of all Elvis Presley’s movies. I had the strangest idea that it came out in 1968 but when I looked it up again I learned that it was released in 1964.
1964 is a very interesting year in Las Vegas’ history. Sin City was still very much a mysterious place with heavy mob influences. Howard Hughes would not begin his investment spree until 1966.
Although Viva Las Vegas is about car racing, it’s set in the heart of Las Vegas and even features a helicopter tour of Hoover Dam.
The plot is very simple. Professional race car driver Lucky Jackson wants to win Las Vegas’ first Grand Prix race. But his car needs some work.
Lucky gets the money to buy a new engine only to lose it all when lovely Rusty Martin (Ann-Margaret) knocks him into a hotel swimming pool. The rest of the movie follows Lucky as he works to pay of his debts, win a cash prize big enough to get him into the race, and win the girl.
And Elvis sings the one song for which a lot of people remember him: “Viva Las Vegas”.
6 – Diamonds Are Forever
Anyone who has only grown up on the Daniel Craig movies about James Bond will probably cringe when they watch Diamonds Are Forever. It’s considered to be one of the worst early Bond-era films and critics say even Sean Connery looks like he’s wondering why he’s in the film.
One of the most memorable and deplorable scenes in the film is where Bambi and Thumper knock Bond for a loop and leave him buried in an underground utility conduit.
Jill St. John manages to show a little extra cheek while Jimmy Dean fails to sell a single sausage in this half-baked adventure that mixes exotic desert and ocean locations with as much sensibility as a Signmund Freud analysis of a Jane Austen novel.
If you like schlock then add this film to your next schlockfest roundup. But the title song, sung by the incomparable Shirley Bassey, will stay with you forever. Dad tells me that song was played every hour on the hour on the radio for about three straight months when it was first released.
You’ll never forget this film.
5 – Cool World
The cool thing about visiting Las Vegas is that’s got a little something for everyone. And before there was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? there was Cool World.
This is one of legendary roto-scoping film maker Ralph Bakshi’s less popular productions. The movie stars Gabriel Byrne as Jack Deebs, Kim Basinger as Holli Would, and Brad Pitt as Detective Frank Harris.
Harris is a WWII veteran who apparently dies in a motorcycle accident in 1945 while giving his mother a joy ride. In reality, Mom passes away and Frank passed into the cartoon reality of “Cool World”. There he builds a new life for himself for the next 47 years.
In 1992 Deebs – who is serving a prison sentence for killing the man his wife cheated on him with – is drawing cartoon adventures around a character named Holli Would. He thinks he invented her but she is really trying to connect with him from “Cool World”.
Holli has designs on Jack and after he is brought into “Cool World” she uses him to cross over into our world. Frank Harris tries to stop Holli’s evil scheme, which threatens two realities. And that’s when things get complicated.
If you’re not a Ralph Bakshi fan you may not enjoy the movie but you’ll probably love the soundtrack, especially if you love the film noir genre.
Prior to the Sam Raimi Spider-man movies most comic book movies failed to take the genre seriously. Although Bakshi’s film world is completely his own invention he always brought an adult perspective to his animation. In fact, Cool World is probably one of the most family friendly Bakshi movies (after The Lord of the Rings, which was completely family friendly).
4 – Ocean’s Eleven
Although many people speak highly of the 1960 film by this name, starring Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, this light-hearted 2001 remake starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt is one of the best semi-comical gangster movies of all time.
The cool thing about Ocean’s Eleven is that all the good guys are bad guys, but they’re not the kinds of criminals people want to send to jail. These bad guys only steal from other bad guys. And they do it without violence.
The remake plot loosely follows the original plot. Both movies features unprecedented casino heists, which in 1960 was probably more dangerous than in 2001 because Sinatra’s crew of bored World War II vets were essentially stealing from the mob.
The Clooney take on Las Vegas is much more stylish with a lot of inside jokes about Sinatra and the mob. The lineup of actors is superb but most of the best lines are reserved for Clooney and Pitt, who come off as almost brotherly in their on-screen rapport.
Another great thing about Ocean’s Eleven is that it sets up some running jokes that are carried through to the third film in the series. The gags about Linus Caldwell’s family (Matt Damon plays him) are subtle in this outing but the writers kept upping their game in the next two movies.
Anyone who loves Rat Pack music will appreciate the soundtrack in this film but the real love has to go to all the fantastic names the writers dreamed up for the various cons the team pulls off.
3 – Ocean’s Thirteen
This is the third and final film in the George Clooney series. To save time I’ll just say this.
The scene with Matt Damon and Bob Einstein is priceless but to fully appreciate it you really need to watch all three movies in sequence.
2 – Fright Night
Like the George Clooney Ocean’s Eleven, this is a fantastic remake of an earlier movie that was well-received. The 2011 version of Fright Night stars a young Anton Yelchin as high school student Charley Brewster. Kids from Charley’s neighborhood have gone missing lately and he begins to suspect his new neighbor, Jerry played by Colin Farrell, may have something to do with the mysterious disappearances.
The film keeps you on the edge as Charley does his best to avoid Jerry, keep people from falling into Jerry’s clutches, and learn how to fight vampires. He turns to Las Vegas magician and entertainer Peter Vincent, played by David Tennant. Tennant may be better known for his role as Doctor Who on the BBC television series but he is an actor of many talents.
Peter and Charley join forces as Charley’s friends try to kill them both. The movie reaches its inevitable climax in a schlocky teenager versus vampire matchup.
The film won a mix of genre awards ranking for both best and worst in its category, and critics generally liked it.
1 – The Hangover
If there is a king of films based in Las Vegas, it has to be The Hangover. The movie has been lampooned a hundred times over for its over-the-top gags and turn-the-corner surprises. There is no depth to which this movie will not sink while the stars (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifinakis, and Justin Bartha) retrace their steps to figure out what they did in Vegas while they were completely wasted.
Batchelor party movies were never the same again after this 2009 classic came out. In reality there is little reason for the audience to care about these four middle-aged friends who don’t know how to act their ages. What you end up caring about is how Mike Tyson figures into everything and why no one is eaten by a tiger.
Vegas will never look the same after you watch this movie. And it probably won’t seem as much fun, either.
Everyone has their favorite set of casino movies. You may not be feeling nostalgic for Caesar’s Palace just yet but give it some time and you may be scheduling the full series of Ocean’s movies just to enjoy the Caldwell family gags.
What makes a movie great fun isn’t the writing, directing, or acting. It’s how you feel when you watch it. If you’re sitting on the edge of your sitting, laughing your head off, or just chuckling at an endless stream of clever repartee then the movie is well worth watching.
Just be careful not to invite that new neighbor into your home. You need to stay safe.