Review written on: August 26th, 2008

21 Review

21 is based on the best-selling novel Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, which I read several years ago. The novel is based on the true story of the MIT blackjack team that took Vegas for millions of dollars. While the movie takes its liberties with the story (as movies based on books often do), I’m sure Mezrich’s version of events isn’t an exact account of what happened either.</p> <p>Jim Sturgess (<a title=” />Across the Universe) stars as Ben Campbell, a bright student with a big dilemma. He needs to raise $300,000 to pay for Harvard Med School or have a compelling enough “life experience” to qualify for a full scholarship. Enter Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) and his crew of blackjack-playing students. Micky mastered the art of counting cards and has taught it to his most exceptional students. They hit Vegas on weekends, playing as high rollers, living the good life with comped suites, room service, and of course lots and lots of money. Then they head back to school, where Ben hides his share of the winnings in a ceiling panel in his dorm room.

The big players attract attention from the “eye in the sky” cameras in one particular casino where human “loss prevention” employees are still employed (as opposed to the digital facial recognition software that the other casinos have been using). Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) recognizes Ben on several occasions and even recognizes his partner’s signal that the table is hot. Ben gets cornered at a table, brought into a back room, and roughed up a bit.

The rest of the movie follows the team as they struggle through Ben’s recognition, in-fighting, and one last big take.

Jim Sturgess is fantastic as Ben. He’s charismatic and has the charm of a young Ewan McGregor. He plays both sides of his role very well – the unassuming college kid and the Vegas high roller. Kate Bosworth is absolutely stunning as the hot rocket scientist classmate/blackjack teammate. I’m not insulted in the least that my husband is a little in love with her. Kevin Spacey plays Micky with an equal amount of charisma and scariness. Micky walks a very fine line between being your best friend and being your worst enemy, and Spacey does a fantastic job with it. Laurence Fishburne is underused, but scary as hell as the casino’s loss prevention specialist.

Overall I enjoyed the movie, but I thought the book was better. Not really too surprising, as that’s my feeling with a lot of movies based on books. However, I thought the book had more excitement, more of a building anxiousness than the movie did. I felt like the book kept building intensity over the entire course of the story, while the movie showed the good times party side of Vegas without the thrill of the winning and beating the system. However, the movie had a nice twist ending that the real life story couldn’t have provided. I’d recommend renting it if you’re into Vegas movies (as I am – the lights, the flashes of roulette tables and slot machines, and the sweeping overhead views of the Strip always have me about five seconds away from booking my next visit), or are interested in how blackjack counting teams work.

There is one major plot hole that still bugs me. In the beginning, the team explains to Ben that they wear disguises so they can hit the same casino without being recognized. However, after the first night, only the girls wear disguises. Which of course, leads to Ben getting caught. It’s only after he’s caught and they go back to playing that they go back to wearing disguises, with Ben explaining to the team that it’s so they aren’t recognized by the facial recognition software in use at most of the casinos.

Side note: there’s a scene where the team explains to Ben how the team structure works – who counts, who plays, what the signals are, etc. It takes place in one of my favorite places in all of Boston – South Street Diner. There are two problems with this scene. One – the place is never that empty. Even at four am on a weeknight the place is packed (I should know – I’ve been there at that hour). Two – what are MIT kids doing in Chinatown in the middle of the night? The T stops running at 12:45am, and it’s not a short walk from MIT to South Street. Sure, they could have taken a cab, but just to have greasy (yet still AWESOME) diner food?

Despite its drawbacks, it’s an entertaining movie and worth adding to your Netflix queue. If you’re really into Vegas and heist-type movies, you might want to pick it up on DVD, but I wouldn’t pay more than $14 or $15 for it.


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