What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, the old saying goes. If Sin City didn’t already exist, we would have said that the place had come straight from the imagination of a film director. Las Vegas is the perfect setting for a movie, with the lights, action, and downright seediness that inspires a million stories.
Many moviemakers have used Vegas as an inspiration over the years, of course. There have also been plenty of films using the city as a supporting actor. The range of Vegas betting sites may offer a convenient way to gamble these days but the original casino city can’t be beat.
Here are seven films that are set in Las Vegas and all use the feel of the place as a major character and story developer.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
For many, this movie was the one that proved that Nicolas Cage could do more than just shouty, crazed characters. In fact, Cage won an Academy Award for his portrayal of an alcoholic showing a side of Vegas that you won’t see in glossy travel magazines.
Cage is a screenwriter who travels to Sin City to drink himself to death and meets prostitute Elisabeth Shue. The movie follows the pair as they navigate the darkness of a city usually advertised as a party capital. Leaving Las Vegas is not an easy watch but it offers up a very different view of the Strip.
For some reason, this movie is not always mentioned in the same conversation as some of Martin Scorsese’s other classics. But for a look at how Las Vegas was transformed by mob money and ultimately ate itself, Casino is an ideal history lesson. The combination of Vegas kitsch and 1970s fashion and design make for a visual masterpiece.
All the familiar Scorsese names are present and correct here. Robert De Niro plays the handicapper in charge of a Vegas casino’s operations, dealing with made men like Joe Pesci and his trophy wife, Sharon Stone. This is the story about the “anything goes” Vegas of the 70s – and its ultimate downfall.
The Cooler (2003)
Some of the best movies are about professions that most people may have never even realised existed. In this cult classic, the ever-brilliant William H. Macy plays Bernie, a “cooler” hired by a casino boss to allow his incredibly bad luck to rub off on the customers. As a cooler, he can make sure that the casino makes more money.
Bernie is only working as a cooler to pay off his own gambling debts and is set on leaving Vegas soon. The worried casino owner tells a waitress to pretend to be interested so he won’t leave town – but she ends up actually falling in love and Bernie’s luck suddenly changes. But that isn’t good for business – or Bernie.
This one is sure to divide the room. Universally panned on its release, there will be many that regard Paul Verhoeven’s erotic drama thriller (as it was billed) as an example of the excesses of Hollywood trying to shock with a story of sex, drugs, and violence. But there has been something of a reappraisal in the last 30 years.
The story of a woman arriving in Las Vegas with dreams of being a showgirl can still be seen as hugely exploitative and lacking any actual eroticism promised by Verhoeven. The pool sex scene is a perfect example of how not to be erotic, for starters. It may still be terrible – but then, isn’t that sometimes the way with cult films?
“Vegas, baby!” To be completely honest, Swingers is actually a movie about a group of down-at-their-luck jobbing actors in Los Angeles. But as they make an impromptu decision to go to Vegas – and Vince Vaughan utters that unforgettable line – we think it warrants a mention here.
The road trip to Vegas is suggested as a way of getting Jon Favreau out of his funk after splitting up with a long-term girlfriend. The friends think they will take over the city like the Rat Pack but Favreau ruins every chance he has with any women, leaving the group to return to LA.
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
If you can’t include two Nicolas Cage films in a run-down of cult Vegas movies then when can you? This ridiculous romantic comedy stars Cage as a writer who has promised his dying mother that he will never get married. But he then has to deal with a girlfriend who really does – and thinks Las Vegas is the perfect location.
Along the way, Cage is conned in a fixed card game and agrees to allow a professional gambler to spend the night with his fiancé in order to pay off his debts. Realising that he actually wants to win her back, Cage then sets off on a madcap journey to find her that includes skydiving with the Flying Elvises, Utah chapter, a skydiving team of Elvis impersonators. We did tell you this movie was ridiculous!
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Terry Gilliam directing Johnny Depp in a movie version of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic novel? Sign us up! Depp is a drug-addled journalist, traveling to Las Vegas with a bloated Benicio del Toro playing his attorney. The original idea is for Depp to cover a motorcycle race but the drugs and Vegas get in the way.
As in the original book, Las Vegas does not come out of this well, with Gilliam (and Thompson originally) making their commentary on the excess of Vegas and the mindless, boring people who go there. This surrealist film was not initially well received but has gone on to fully deserve its place on our Vegas cult movie list.