21 (2008) dir. Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey
Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “Bringing Down the House” – the true story of how a group of MIT students used their superior math skills to beat Las Vegas at blackjack – was an enjoyable read. Because of the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah film, the movie version had to change its name to "21". For a film about deception Robert Luketic and his writers (and pardon the pun) lay every card on the table early resulting in a predictable narrative path with little creativity, excitement and drama.
Jim Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, an MIT student who has the grades to get into Harvard Med, but not the money. He’s angling for a scholarship but without it, he’ll need $400,000 to pay his way through. After impressing one of his professors Mikey Rosa, he is approached by Mikey to participate in a blackjack club. This is not ‘poker-night’ for the guys, it’s an elaborate card counting scam, led by Mikey himself. The allure of the fast-paced, high-stakes Vegas operation is tempting, not to mention the hottest girl in school is also part of club. It’s a no-brainer for Ben.
The best part of the film is the opening act where we, as the audience, in the shoes of Ben, learn the ropes of card counting. A simplified system of counting high cards as +1 and low cards as -1 allows the group to determine when a “hot” deck is about to dish out good hands. 'Spotters' signal to the roaming big players which table to sit down at, and thus drop some major cash on high potential decks.
Ben's character follows a predictable path of rise and fall and redemption. As expected there’s the Guy Ritchie-style montage scene where we see our foursome get rich quick, buy expensive suits, and party in comped glamour suites. Of course Ben falls in love with the hot chick (Kate Bosworth, who has no character other than playing ‘the unattainable’) and eventually loses some money. A series of losing hands for Ben eventually sees him become enemies with Mikey and put the old school Casino authority hot on his tail.
Luketic and his writers needed to get educated with David Mamet to know how to film gambling. Ben resorts to a con to get himself out of trouble. But it’s a pathetically conceived scheme which should not have fooled his enemies but it does. Ben does get out of hot water while learning a lesson about himself in the end. It’s TV after school special plotting and resolution at best, and certainly doesn’t tell us more than that Beverly Hills 90210 episode where Brandon becomes a gambling addict.
Other than the freshness of math geeks using their brains to beat Vegas, the heart of the film is the character arc of Ben. The friends he alienates while he changes from engineer geek to Versace-wearing blackjack super stud is a laughably wrapped-up subplot. It’s best to either read the book or watch the special features on the DVD where the actors describe to us their method of counting – so everyone at home can start their own 21-club, beat Vegas, then get their faces pounded in by the Casino-police.
"21" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment