We all know the tired saying, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” a phrase that has taken on a diversely applicable definition. Usually, it means that whatever terrible, sinful acts of debauchery, fraud, and potential criminal activity one may commit, typically with friends, while in Las Vegas will automatically qualify for the utmost discretion from those party to such events. Invariably, the truth will out, and partners will be left devastated that you’ve inadvertently married a sex worker, stolen Mike Tyson’s tiger, and kidnapped a furious Asian gangster to whom you owe $80,000…
Sin City has played host to more than memorable bachelor parties; it’s also the setting for equally unforgettable movies, from Oceans Eleven, Casino, and Leaving Las Vegas, to The Hangover, Elvis, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What is it about the city situated in the middle of a desert that makes it such an intriguing movie setting? Whether it’s the connotations of sin and iniquity, the photogenic neon lights and cityscape, or the aura of gambling and life-changing poker hands, Vegas has a vibe.
There are many good films that could have been great if they had been set against the backdrop of the casinos, bright lights, and the distant Nevadan mountain ranges of Las Vegas, and these would’ve been some of the most interesting.
The Safdie brothers’ hectic fever dream of a film, Uncut Gems, relies heavily on the frenetic nature of its setting; New York. As a born and bred New Yorker, Adam Sandler’s accent and persona slot in seamlessly, yet due to the film’s very nature of anxiety in late capitalism, placing a gambling addict in Sin City or somewhere Vegas-adjacent could’ve actually been more stressful.
Not only is the wagering business at the heart of Vegas, but it’s also the true image of capitalist America, with an eye for money, glitz, glamour, and not much else. For a man in a perpetual chase for more affluence and risk, is there a more suitable place to do it than a city where these dreams are won and lost at the spin of a wheel?
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 movie Hard Eight is very initially based in Las Vegas, before the narrative takes us to Reno, Nevada. The film tells the story of a wise, older gentleman named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who trains a down-on-his-luck youngster, John (John C. Reilly), in the art of gambling. The pair soon strike up a formidable, father-son-like partnership.
While Anderson is going for a more understated, sleazier feel, the grandeur, fame, and aesthetic of the extensive Vegas casinos could have made for a better, more compelling backdrop. There are certainly cheap-looking dives in Las Vegas, and this may have given the film an even more authentic, sadder ambiance.
Upon first viewing, with a name like Sin City, themes of Las Vegas automatically spring to mind. The action noir flick that is actually set in Basin City, Washington, follows four people as they deal with criminality, specifically homicide, sex abuse, cannibalism, and prostitution.
The sheer level of degradation and degeneration on display would certainly suit the dim lights and dark backstreets of the Las Vegas criminal underworld, a city that deals in money, blood, fraud, and sex work. If you think the gritty black and white mood of film noir doesn’t fit the shiny neon of Las Vegas, think again (or just watch The Las Vegas Story, The Invisible Wall, or Guns Girls and Gangsters).
David Fincher’s epic ’90s horror thriller, aptly named after the seven deadly sins, follows two crime-stoppers, David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), who are entrusted with investigating the increasingly grim and gruesome murders that are each inextricably linked to one of the deadly sins.
Seven takes place in an unnamed city which might as well be Gotham, with all the rain, crime and corruption, but it was actually filmed in Oakland, California. However, it could have just as feasibly been set in the most sordid spots of Vegas, from having the bodies be found in the infamous red-light district, to changing the ending to the outskirts of Vegas in the Nevada desert. A film about the seven deadly sins, Seven should’ve been set in Sin City.
Romeo + Juliet
Because, why the hell not? Baz Luhrmann’s maximalist, MTV-style screen adaptation was a uniquely modern take on a Shakespearean classic. Originally set in the Italian city of Verona, Luhrmann and company transported it 6,000 miles across the Atlantic to the quasi-fictional Verona Beach, California.
A contemporary update, the film could have benefited from a Vegas setting (call it Las Vegonas, if you will). Romeo + Juliet could’ve had a field day with the city’s quirks, with the Montagues and Capulets as warring casino owners or hoteliers, and the star-crossed lovers meeting surreptitiously in the lobby at the MGM Grand, or under the faux Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas.
In the low-budget action-thriller from Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive, Ryan Gosling plays the mysterious unnamed driver and totally changed his image in the process. A stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night, he’s frequently enlisted by the unforgiving mob bosses of L.A.
This romantic Los Angeles noir makes for enthralling viewing, with brilliant set-pieces, and a low-key neon fluorescence that complements its pulsing synth score. This LED dream is perhaps more befitting of a Vegas setting, with the endless rows of Bad Times at the El Royale-style signs adorned with the vibrant neon of downtown Las Vegas. Considering the film’s obsession with stylized lighting, Vegas seems like it would’ve been a perfect fit, at least for some of the film.
Yes, it may have proved impractical to film American Hustle in the Vegas heat, what with the sheer amount of hairspray used in maintaining the quiffs, comb-overs, and bouffants of its central characters. David O. Russell’s film would have benefited from the elaborate scheming taking place in Gluttony Central, with the often grandiose and ostentatious displays of wealth by Sheikhs, mafia bosses, and fraudsters fitting right into the film.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a high-school teen who cunningly wangles himself a day off school, runs riot in a city akin to God’s playground — what could possibly go wrong? As one of the funniest and most lighthearted movies of the 1980s, the prospect of Ferris Bueller taking his friend’s dad’s Ferrari for a spin down Las Vegas Boulevard is pretty hysterical, and the hijinks the gang could’ve got in if they drove to Las Vegas could’ve arguably made this classic even better.