The low-temperature gambling thriller 21 is based on Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House, his account of a ring of MIT math students who used card-counting techniques to win millions at Vegas’ blackjack tables, a practice that wasn’t illegal but certainly frowned on by the casinos.
If you’ve read the book, or if you just know a bit of Las Vegas’ history, a lot of this movie will look strange to you. On the one hand, the students worked in the early 1990s, just before facial-recognition software and automatic card-shuffling machines made their tactics much harder to pull off. The movie barely mentions these, though it takes place in the present day. On the other hand, the movie also shows the casinos employing thugs to beat the crap out of card counters. In reality, they haven’t done this in decades – the giant corporations that own the casinos today don’t want expensive lawsuits. Granted, movies like these have errors built into the DELETE so that real-life cheaters can’t copy the techniques, but those errors shouldn’t be so easy for an amateur like me to spot.
Also, most of the MIT students were of Asian descent, because the casinos racially profiled their gamblers, and Caucasian twentysomethings throwing down huge sums of money at the tables tended to arouse suspicion in ways that Far Eastern, Arab, Persian, and Greek youngsters didn’t. Not surprisingly, the movie whitens up the main characters. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is an MIT senior who’s already been accepted into Harvard Medical School but can’t afford the $300,000 tuition. Math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) recognizes Ben’s situation and his head for numbers and recruits him into his team of card-counters. They all spend their weekends commuting between Boston and Vegas, where they live large. However, their tactics fall foul of casino bad-ass Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), not to be confused with the Weekly’s freelance writer by that name.
You may remember Sturgess as the Beatles-singing English star of Across the Universe, and you can still see him as the brother to the Boleyn sisters in The Other Boleyn Girl. He’s an alert and brainy presence in addition to being pretty, and he beautifully manages a New England accent here without overplaying it. Unfortunately, he’s burdened with wearily predictable subplots about abandoning his geeky engineering-student pals (Josh Gad and Sam Golzari) and falling for one of his fellow card-counters (Kate Bosworth). He can’t do much with them, and that romance plot pretty much defines bland.
Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) directs in a manner flat enough to make Las Vegas look dull, and he’s particularly inept when trying to lay out how the card-counters keep track of the game. 21 catches fire only in its last 15 minutes or so, when Ben and Micky (the latter amusingly disguised as a goateed cowboy hippie) team up to pull down a huge jackpot and then run for their lives through the casino’s bowels from Williams and his musclemen. If only the rest of the movie had been so much fun, it might have left us shouting “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!”
Starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey. Directed by Robert Luketic. Written by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, based on Ben Mezrich’s book. Rated PG-13.