An unconvincing exercise in moral complexity, 21 is based on Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays brilliant, blue-collar scholar Ben Campbell, whose doubts that he'll win a scholarship to Harvard Medical School compel him to join a secret, M.I.T. gang of math whiz kids. Under the silky but chilling command of a math professor (Kevin Spacey), Jim and the others master card counting, i.e., the statistical analysis of cards dealt in blackjack games. The team lives a humdrum existence during the week, but on weekends in Sin City, the students are rolling in cash, going to exclusive clubs, and feeling on top of the world. (Ben even gets the girl: a comely, fellow counter played by Kate Bosworth.) Despite all that success, Ben feels ethically compromised, and indeed director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), in the old tradition of American movies, plays it both ways where fun vices are concerned. On the one hand, it feels so good; on the other, ahem, we know it's wrong. That studied ambivalence proves wearing after a while, making the most interesting character in the film a casino watchdog played by Laurence Fishburne. A master at reading the emotions of gamblers beating the house with a scam, he's admirable for being good at his job, but repellent for wrecking the faces of counters in casino dungeons. He's all about moral complexity in the tradition of anti-heroes, and a truly provocative element in an otherwise superficial movie. --Tom Keogh
Read the book 21 was based on
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Stills from 21 (click for larger image)
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Customer Review: Glamorous does not equal better
The story of how several MIT students were able to beat Vegas at their own game is compelling and entertaining. Unfortunately, it's told in a book titled Bringing Down the House not this movie. While based on the factual account of extremely bright card counters who devised a system capable of generating a very favorable win ratio in Black Jack, 21 delivers very little of that true story. Instead, it focuses on sensationalizing elements of the story and dramatically over simplifying others. It provides a glamorous but empty portrayal of characters who in real life were very interesting and intelligent.
Card counting, as represented in this movie, hardly requires anything more than an average IQ and the ability to count quickly, not the gifted mind of a top MIT student. Frankly, this has been simplified so that the viewer is able to grasp the key concepts; not a bad idea in itself since not everyone is a gifted mathematician, but they've gone too far and left the viewer wondering what, if anything, makes the protagonist Ben Campbell or any of his cohorts special. As portrayed in 21, it seems that anyone could practice counting cards in their basements for several months and then go make unlimited amounts of money in Vegas. There are ways to make material accessible to the audience without over simplifying it to the level of silliness. The Paper Chase is a good example of how to do this tastefully.
Over simplification is not the only issue in 21. Other elements have been made glamorous where unnecessary, sometimes with a level of implausibility that is laughable. The worst of these would require providing spoilers, but there are a few worth mentioning. First, these wildly intelligent card counters, led by a street-smart proffer played by a well cast Kevin Spacey, are always frequenting night clubs, sleeping in luxury casino penthouses, and in general drawing massive amounts of attention to themselves, all while purportedly trying to stay under the radar of the Casinos and their eye-in-the-sky security experts. This is ridiculous. Not even Lawrence Fishburn's entirely convincing and frightening portrayal of an old-school casino security chief can save this movie from dreary implausibility. Second, the interplay between the students are based on silly cliche. These same 'brilliant' students cannot seem to remember their own basic set of rules, or even follow basic Black Jack strategy when they are either fatigued, angry, etc... That is a blatant, undercutting reversal of what is supposed to make them who they are: an icy ability to calculate odds and stick to a system.
Spacey and Fishburn make the movie less of an ordeal, but they're not enough to save this one from itself. Some of the dialogue is pretty interesting, especially the interplay between the protagonist Ben and his cut-throat professor. The psychological underpinnings of the relationships between Ben, the professor, and the former premier card counter whom Ben has supplanted could have been a dramatic gold mine, but these interactions are left on the sidelines in a movie more concerned about driving the plot forward than telling a great story.
Overall, 21 is worth watching simply because its the next closest thing to the excellent book on which it is based. This is a rent not a buy. 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3 because of Spacey and Fishburn.
Customer Review: cool movie
the movie was great,, and its based on a true story,, so cool !!