Review: 21

There is only one game in a casino where you play against the house and you have the possibility of beating the odds – if you know what you’re doing. That game is blackjack aka 21. The rules are simple: starting with two cards, you can keep drawing until you get as close to 21 as you can without going over. The dealer does the same thing and whoever is closer at the end, wins. Simple, right?

Well, in the early 80s through the early 90s, different groups of students at MIT used a mathematical system to beat the game and take various casinos for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then, in 1993, it all changed. A small group of MIT students, led by a charismatic mathematics professor, decided to try and take Vegas for the big score. The new film 21 is based loosely on their experiences.

When I say loosely, I mean loosely. The film takes place today instead of fifteen years ago and so the face recognition technology which makes their big run for the bucks a necessity isn’t historically accurate. Neither are the names or hotels. Really, aside from coming from MIT and the fact they used a card counting technique, I’m not sure what was real and what wasn’t. So as a “true story” this doesn’t have much to offer, but it does work as a semi-decent thriller.

In this case, Jim Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, a math genius who becomes the newest member of the team, recruited by professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a former card counter himself, and Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the hottest girl in school who also happens to be a numbers whiz. Through Ben we get the general gist of what card counting entails and roughly how it works in order to take the casino. We also get a nice kid who gets corrupted by the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas as well as the potential for making hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For Ben, this is just a means to an end; He needs $300K for tuition at Harvard Medical School and as soon as he gets that, he’s out. Of course, once he’s reached his goal (and, by the way, gotten the girl) he realizes he likes the lifestyle way too much to give it up. But, like everything, there’s a price to his new life and that cost is where the main drama and tension of the film come in. Because Ben is not just the new guy, but also the best on the team, jealousy erupts between him and the former top guy, Fisher (Jacob Pitts). Then there’s tension with Micky and finally, through various mistakes, the team draws the attention of security goon Cole Williams (a completely wasted Laurence Fishburne). Ultimately, Ben learns a lesson about what’s really important in life and goes on to Medical school, new girlfriend in tow.

I’m mixed about 21. While the performances were mostly solid, and the direction, by Robert Luketic (of Legally Blonde previously), is serviceable, the script was weak. Because we never get more than stereotypes for anyone besides Ben and Micky (even Jill is two-dimensional) there’s no reason for any of the action. It feels like a TV movie trying to sneak into the cinema. Part of this is because they are hampered by translating the story into 2008 language and settings. If they had been able to adhere closer to the true story, this would have been a tighter film and the tension would have been ratcheted up exponentially.

As it is, 21 is a diversion. It provides some nice camera work and pretty people getting away with crimes we all wish we could get away with. But like ill-gotten gains, this isn’t going to stay with you for very long.

(Originally published on

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