What words do you think of when you hear the name Las Vegas? Sex, drugs and rock and roll, right? For most people, yes, but for an ambitious group of M.I.T. students and their advisor, Vegas is thought of as something totally different: a means to become rich.
The movie 21, directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), is based on a true story and the novel Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich. The basic plot of each media is the same—a team from M.I.T. studies the game of blackjack and the extreme skill of card counting in order to earn thousands of dollars from the big casinos. But as is the case with many books turned into films, the film strays from real life to an enormous extent.
The protagonist, Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), is a brilliant student who has everything going for him except for money.
When he solves the famous Monty Hall Problem in his non-linear equations class, Professor Mickey Rosa, played by Kevin Spacey (Se7en, American Beauty) takes notice of him and has him invited to secret meetings of the blackjack team.
Initially Ben refuses, since he has a steady job and good friends and important extracurricular activities, but eventually he joins because he is desperate for the $300,000 that medical school will set him back. He joins reluctantly, saying that he will make the $300,000, and then he’s done.
Since Ben is filling an empty spot, the team is now complete and is ready to shift into high gear in Sin City. The system utilized by the team runs like a top sports car, with many symbols, gestures and codes used to communicate vital information through the team members on the casino floor. For example, crossed arms means the table is hot, the word “sweet” stands for a card count of +16 and running your fingers through your hair means “Get out, NOW!” Though the trips are mostly business, the team has time to spare to spend some of their well-earned cash. The high-roller lifestyle can have a good side in that Ben and teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) become love interests, and it can also have a bad side in that it separates Ben from his best friends back in Boston.
The movie is smart, yet numbed for a wide audience. You need not have any knowledge of blackjack to understand the film. 21 focuses on the relationships and emotional effects of the game instead of watching cards dealt for hours on end, not unlike the World Series of Poker on television. The movie’s pace is very fast, with many scene changes going back and forth from Las Vegas to Boston, and the climax is one not to miss.
Though the film is packed with entertainment throughout, the last forty-five minutes of the 123 minute runtime is something out of an action/suspense film and the pace quickens by a significant amount. A string of plot twists and the inclusion of Lawrence Fishburne as a cheating enforcer guarantee that 21 will be a hit at the box office.
Underneath the sugar-coated skin of the film, there lie some demons in the casting and writing. Dialogue between any of the students on the team, especially in the Vegas scenes, is dull and mainly dim-witted. The actors playing the students (Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts) mesh well together, but their characters are written poorly and in many cases have unrealistic personalities.
Kevin Spacey, on the other had, performed brilliantly and was the highlight of the casting. He was one hundred percent believable as a college professor and brought the quality level back from the grave.
Overall 21 deals a great hand of entertainment value, but if you go searching for depth in it, do not expect to find any. Like the phrase goes, sometimes what happens in Vegas really should stay in Vegas.