21 - The Sexiest Card Playing Movie Since Rounders
by Alex Billington
March 27, 2008
There's a certain finesse that directors need to make a film about gambling in Las Vegas seem realistic and thrilling, and that's an immense challenge that not too many have been able to achieve. Blackjack is the game of choice in 21 and director Robert Luketic has made scamming casinos just as glitzy and as glamourous as in Ocean's Eleven. While not particularly as unforgettable as Steven Soderbergh's remake, 21 can be best summed up in a quote from Laurence Fishburne, who told me at a party the night before the premiere that 21 "is just a sexy movie." He's right.
Based on Ben Mezrich's bestselling novel Bringing Down the House, 21 is about MIT math genius Ben Campbell's (Jim Sturgess) adventure into the world of blackjack card counting. Ben is in dire need of $300,000, or a full-ride scholarship, to get into Harvard Medical school. Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) has an unusual club at MIT: on weekends, Micky flies the "MIT Blackjack Club" to Las Vegas where four members count cards at the blackjack tables and bet strategically to make thousands of dollars. The casinos start to catch on as the money flows away from them, and security pro Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) begins to uncover Micky's elaborate scheme.
If you're not familiar with card counting, or blackjack at all, then thankfully 21 gives you a brief introduction - well, to a point. Face cards are assigned a value of -1 and low numbers a value of +1. Micky's players keep a running tally of these point values as cards are dealt at their tables. When a table is "hot," at a count of +15 or more, a player signals for the lead to come in and begin playing. Luketic does not explain the system in complete detail, but it suffices to say that keeping track of hot tables gives the MIT Blackjack Club a significant advantage when making big bets. Unfortunately as an avid card player myself, this lack of further explanation pulled me out of the film, as I kept wondering what exactly was happening.
21 is fun because of its carefree style and attitude, despite its rather rickety story. Other gambling-themed movies like Lucky You treat gaming as dry, boring time-filler, but Luketic adds vivid colors and looks and even speeds up the time around Ben as he plays in 21. The result is something that I'd definitely call "sexy" and is above all entertaining. The style will enthrall even casual gamblers and keeps the story rolling along.
Ben is actually an Asian kid in Mezrich's novel, but for the movie his character was changed to accommodate Jim Sturgess. As much as I admire Sturgess as an actor, he just didn't fit the part. I don't blame Sturgess for this; I take exception with the producers for using a young, good-looking British actor rather than staying true to the source material. On top of that, ex-Lex Luthor Kevin Spacey also felt a bit out of place as the mastermind here. However, Kate Bosworth and Aaron Yoo filled in the gaps and surprised me with their ability to make up for the otherwise rough casting choices of Sturgess and Spacey.
21, while not the must-see movie of the year, is a fun weekend film that card players like myself can kick back and enjoy. It is flawed in a few places, but if you enjoy the glitz and glamour of Vegas gaming, you'll walk out of it with a smile on your face - not only because the action was fun to watch, but because the reveal at the end is a damn good one.