- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
lackjack may be the world’s most popular casino game, but it’s never had a chance to shine on the big screen. Well, not quite like poker, anyway. It’s also the only casino game where the player has a 50 percent chance of winning, and with those kinds of odds, it’s no surprise why most people head to the blackjack tables when they visit Vegas.
Unfortunately, while it's fun for the people playing, blackjack isn't very exciting to watch, which is why it took a book like “Bringing Down the House” to finally make a movie about it. Loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s national bestseller, “21” tells the real-life story of a group of MIT students who took Vegas for millions. The book was as thrilling as it was eye-opening. The movie? Not so much. But while it doesn’t completely capture the spirit of the book, “21” is still a decent drama that, if nothing else, will help usher in a new era of gambling films that don’t all take place at the poker table.
The film stars Jim Sturgess as Ben Campbell, an MIT senior who’s just been accepted into Harvard Medical School. The only problem is that it’s going to cost him $300,000 just to pay his way, and though he’s the perfect student on paper, he’s lacking that certain quality that the school’s board members look for in prospective scholarship candidates. Enter Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), Ben’s new professor and the leader of an MIT card-counting team that spend their weekends winning thousands in Vegas. After wowing Rosa during a theoretical math class, Ben is invited to join the team. Within weeks, he’s the group’s biggest earner, but when an old school loss prevention specialist (Laurence Fishburne) catches wind of their operation, Ben’s money troubles become the least of his worries.
From here, the film spins off in a different direction from the book, and while fans will undoubtedly complain about the new ending, it’s entirely necessary due to the open-endedness of the original conclusion. After all, Mezrich’s account focuses on only one of the MIT card-counting teams of the 90s. There were many more before it, several others after it, and even a few that existed at the same time.
The Hollywood version of this particular team isn’t exactly faithful to the real-life participants (for starters, the three main players were all Asian), but it doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling, either. Spacey steals the show as the college professor you wish you had, while Sturgess continues to build on his leading-man status. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Kate Bosworth looks too old for the part she’s playing, Fishburne’s character would have been more entertaining in the hands of Samuel L. Jackson, and up-and-comers like Aaron Yoo (“Disturbia”) and Sam Golzari (“American Dreamz”) are wasted in supporting roles.
Though “21” spends a fair amount of time in the casinos, many people will undoubtedly still be wondering how the MIT students actually pulled it off. Granted, the film does explain the basic concept of their system (hand signals indicate hot and cold tables, while code words designate the current count), but it never goes into detail about what these values actually represent. Mezrich’s book, on the other hand, not only explains the various card values (pluses, minuses and neutrals), but it also offers examples to make understanding the process much easier.
Of course, this amount of exposition would have definitely made the film feel even longer than it already does, but it would have also lent a certain amount of realism to a setup that some moviegoers just aren’t going to buy. Whatever category you might fall into, nothing beats the real thing, and you’d be much better off just skipping the movie altogether and reading the book instead. Odds are you'll like it.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
While not packing quite as much of a punch as many would have expected from Sony’s surprise box office hit, the Blu-ray release of “21” still offers an attractive collection of extras including an audio commentary with director Robert Luketic and producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti, and a virtual blackjack game that promises to be more exciting once the disc’s BD-Live feature goes live. Rounding out the set is a decent making-of featurette (“Basic Strategy”), a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s production design (“Money Plays”), and a short featurette where the cast discusses basic strategy of blackjack (“The Advantage Player”).