“21” which opens this Friday the 28th, is based on the true story of a group of brilliant M.I.T. students who flew to Vegas on the weekends playing Blackjack and doing their best to beat the casinos with a tag team system of counting cards. Based on the book “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who took Vegas for Millions” by Ben Mezrich is an entertaining, tightly scripted film penned by Peter Steinfield and Allan Loeb.
The story follows Ben Campbell, played aptly by English actor Jim Sturgess, most recently seen in Across the Universe. Sturgess does such a good job playing the fresh faced American student Ben, that I kept turning to my friend Lisa and asking her, “He is British isnt’ he?” I think this film will firmly establish him in Hollywood and in America. Sturgess is believable as the idealistic, gifted but shy senior who finds himself in the dilemma of being accepted to Harvard Medical School but without the means to afford the $300,000 price tag to attend and does a great job with the role.
Ben comes to the attention of his MIT professor Micky Rosa, played by the talented Kevin Spacey, by answering a question of probability based on a game show question and is invited to join their team of elite card counting mathematicians. Card counting to me is a gift and if you can keep count and remember what cards are played then I figure more power to you. As Micky says, “Card counting is not illegal!” However for some reason the casinos frown on this ability. I don’t know why. They obviously have the advantage the majority of the time so when some plucky college students (or an autistic adult like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman) comes along, you can’t help but root for them.
At first Ben has no interest in participating in their endeavor. However, the thought of quickly earning his Harvard tuition and with the entreaties of Jill Taylor, played by the perky Kate Bosworth, whom he of course has a crush on and pursues, he succumbs. But he’s adamant that he’ll only play the game until he’s earned his tuition money.
Micky makes the transition for him an easy one by getting Ben’s other professors to give him A’s and forgive missed assignments. But with the seduction of Vegas, the glamour of big money and the attention of Jill, Ben eventually loses his innocence, his closest friends and the sight of his eventual goal.
Complicating matters is Lawrence Fishburne playing Cole Williams who heads a security service for the casinos trying to catch cheaters. The dilemma he’s facing is his company is quickly being replaced by biomedical software that reads player’s faces, so he feels exposing the card counting students would help save his career and company. And, just to add in an extra side-plot he has an axe to grind with Micky.
The movie is fast paced. You’re drawn in from the get go by the quick establishment of characters and plot. The cinematography is slick along with the snappy dialog and popping soundtrack which I often found myself tapping my feet to the beat.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I’m not a gambler, I’m not crazy about Las Vegas and I certainly don’t have the ability to count cards but during the movie even I wanted to go to Vegas to attempt to “bring down the house”!