The film 21 is based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich.
This is worth noting because it is the first clue of what goes wrong with the film. I didn’t read the book. However, those who have argue that the MIT students involved in the card-counting scheme were actually all Asian.
That’s not the case as the team had a racial mix of players. Nevertheless, the filmmakers chose to turn the story into an action/adventure morality tale than simply telling the real story.
The movie stars Jim Sturgess as Ben Campbell, an MIT honors student who has just been accepted into Harvard Medical School. He is admitted into the school, but doesn’t have $300,000 to pay for tuition. After he is told about the overwhelming odds against him attaining a prestigious scholarship, he is brought to a secret meeting by a schoolmate of a group that counts cards in casino blackjack games.
The group is led and trained by his math teacher Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey). The team features students Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), Choi (Aaron Yoo) and Kianna (Liza Lapira, who isn’t given much to do here but has a magnetic beauty that makes me want to see more of her).
After some hesitation, Campbell finally agrees to join the team because if he didn’t, the movie would be over in 20 minutes by my count. He tells himself it’s only to pay for school, which is a pretty reasonable conclusion. After all- it’s not illegal.
The students’ don disguises and go to casinos under assumed names and identities. The women give hand signals to the men if a table is “hot,” meaning that the high cards have yet to be played. Another counter then sits down and starts playing. Unfortunately, after a few repeat visits to the same Vegas casino Campbell’s presence arouses the suspicion of Cole (Lawrence Fishburne) who “can’t stand card counters.” He vows to beat the crap out of anyone caught doing it.
Remember, it’s not illegal, but Cole apparently never got the memo. As for that famous motto, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas this time around as Campbell becomes obsessed with winning. Meanwhile, his relationship with Taylor flourishes. But how authentic can we take it? She is a scammer, after all. And as he continues to lose focus, Campbell draws the ire of Rosa.
Where the film goes next I will not reveal, accept to say that there are some logical problems with the film. There’s also no character development. For instance, we learn nothing about Campbell or Taylor’s fathers, other than the fact that they are “gone.”
The movie could have really been onto something if it had explored those issues further.
Instead, director Robert Luketic and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb seem to care more about creating colorful montages and melodramatic double-crosses than telling a story. Clearly, most of the events in this film did not really happen. It’s instead shaped and reshaped to appeal to an audience of apparent Ritalin addicts.
The biggest indiscretion the film commits is in its ending. No surprise there given that Kevin Spacey has presided over some of the least satisfying endings in film history with The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and The Life of David Gale.
21 is a gamble that, unlike the MIT students’ casino run, doesn’t payoff.