21 Could Be A Better Card-Counting Film, But Chooses To Stick To The Hollywood Formula

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What if we told you that you can easily beat a casino if you had the right math skills? Yes, you read that right, math skills? Hollywood blockbuster movie 21 inspired a lot of amateur mathematicians back in 2008 with the idea that you didn’t need luck to win at casino games like poker or blackjack; all you needed was a skilled knowledge of math in order to count cards. Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s assuring somehow to know that you don’t need to go on a hot streak to win. (Or maybe rubbing a rabbit’s foot for luck may be an easier risk to take.) In reviewing 21, I wish I was luckier in getting a better casino heist film. On with the review.

Anyway, 21 is the story of a group of MIT students, led by Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess, in the peak of his lead actor phase) that set out to win a lot of cash by gaming casinos using their card-counting abilities, encouraged by their professor Micky Rosa (played by Kevin Spacey, who always seems to find his way into these casino movies to help round out the supporting cast).

Campbell wants to get into Harvard Medical School but is too poor to afford the tuition. The best he can do is try for the Robinson Scholarship, which is hard to get into despite his good scores and top grades in college. During one of Ben’s advanced math classes, his professor Rosa challenges Campbell with the Monty Hall problem, which Campbell solves successfully. He then asks Campbell if he’d like to join his blackjack team led by Rosa, which consists of other math students, Jill Taylor (played by Kate Bosworth), Choi, Kianna, and Fisher. The blackjack team is really a team of players who win by card counting, which is to say, cheating in casinos. Campbell agrees only to earn enough money to pay for his medical school tuition, but soon enjoys the fast lifestyle much to the jealousy of his more senior teammates.

There are other developments during Campbell’s run with the team. Teammate Fisher, who is jealous of Campbell’s success, gets kicked off the team after being drunkenly belligerent. Campbell starts falling for his female teammate Jill. Casino security chief Cole Williams (played by Laurence Fishburne) has been watching the team play. Eventually, Campbell becomes distracted by everything, falling behind in his actual schoolwork, and failing terribly at one game. Rosa walks out on the team, and ends up snitching the whole operation out to Williams.

Campbell comes back to MIT and finds out that he won’t be graduating due to an incomplete grade for one of his classes. His money has also been stolen, and he realizes that Rosa might be behind it; he makes a deal with Rosa for one more casino hit. After the game is played and the team is discovered, Rosa tries to make a run for it with the money, but it turns out that Campbell had also made a deal with Williams, double-crossing his mentor after it turns out that Williams and Rosa have a long history with each other.

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Before we begin with the review about 21 (a reference, by the way, to blackjack if you didn’t already know) it has to be said that this movie’s story is based on real-life events. And this film is a most egregious whitewasher; the original Ben Campbell wasn’t even a Ben Campbell. It’s based on the exploits of a real MIT blackjack team that’s full of Asian students, regardless of how stereotypical that might sound. Putting two white people in the lead of the cast is one of the more terrible decisions Hollywood has made (but not surprising), and if a movie did that today, nobody would stand for it.

That said, even taken on whatever merits it has left (especially with two heavyweights like Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne), 21 is pretty much a so-so film. It wastes a decent cast. I’ll agree with other reviews in that there’s an interesting premise for an awesome casino-science drama-heist, but Hollywood had to go all Hollywood and add in things the story didn’t need, like a love story that was thrown in there to help cover all their bases. What’s even worse is that you realize that it’s a love story between two white people to help make the whole thing look more attractive. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work well, being forgettable at best.

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So despite some natural fun-to-watch performances by the notable cast in this film, 21 just is a bore. What if we got a movie that was straight up scientific instead? Something a little more like Catch Me If You Can, a film that really had fun showing everyone how Leonardo DiCaprio did all of his transformations and fooled the rest of the world. Sure, there’s only really so much to show when it comes to card counting in blackjack, but focusing on the game, and the subsequent chase that makes more sense, would make for a better-reviewed movie. Instead, 21 was too run-of-the-mill for purists. Had it been made in this decade, it most likely would’ve gotten a much slicker treatment, but alas.

Is 21 worth a watch, then? If you’re a Jim Sturgess fan after seeing movies like The Other Boleyn Girl or Across the Universe and want to see him perform that croaky, perfunctory faux-American accent guys like Hugh Laurie and Damian Lewis have popularized in shows like House and Band of Brothers, then go ahead. If you like watching a lot of Kevin Spacey because of shows like House of Cards, go ahead. For what it is, 21 isn’t a terrible choice, only quite uninspired. On a better day, you can find a better movie. A better casino film, too.

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