The movie 21 went into general release last Friday. It is very loosely based on Ben Mezrich�s book, Bringing Down the House, which describes the adventures of a 1992 MIT blackjack team. The time frame has been shifted to the present and the movie suffers from the shift. Directed by Robert Luketic, the movie falls short of just about everything it takes to make a good movie.
Jim Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, who is a final year MIT student. Campbell has been accepted to Harvard Medical School, which doesn�t make a lot of sense for someone who appears to be either a math or engineering student at MIT, but that�s just the first of the movie�s inconsistencies. Campbell has applied for a scholarship to Harvard, but if he doesn�t get the scholarship, he has no way to pay the $300,000 cost of med school. Apparently, he has never heard of student loans. He attracts the attention of an MIT professor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), when he solves the Monte Hall problem that deals with shifting probabilities. Rosa approaches Ben and invites him to join his blackjack team.
At first, Ben doesn�t want to do it. He is working toward graduation and is involved in an engineering competition with two of his fellow students and best friends. Then he discovers that Kate Bosworth�s character, Jill Taylor, is on the team. Ben and his MIT geek buddies have worshipped Jill from afar and it doesn�t take much for Jill to convince him to join the team. Along the way, Ben abandons his friends, lies to his sainted mother who has dedicated her life to getting him to Harvard, and becomes a total jerk.
After a training period, Ben and the team are ready for Vegas. The blackjack scenes in the movie are so poorly done that they are laughable. The first hint that this movie is not a treatise on the game is when Jill tells Ben that splitting eights against tens and aces is for suckers. From there, the blackjack aspects go straight downhill. The team uses spotters to signal a big player that the count has reached a point where the BP can come in and place his big bets. Ben is the big player. Once he arrives at the table, the spotter uses code words to let the BP know what the count is. The spotter then stays at the table to tell the BP when to leave when the count tanks or when something is going wrong. If the BP knows the count and knows how to count himself, it doesn�t make a lot of sense for the spotter to hang around, but that�s the way they do it in the movie. Apparently, the table limits on the blackjack main floors have been suspended for the team, since Ben waltzes in and starts making bets of $10K or more without drawing a smidgeon of attention from the pit bosses.
Enter Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne). He is a Griffin-style counter catcher who is worried about losing business to Biometrica�s facial recognition software. He carries a little bag full of heavy signet rings which he wears when he beats counters after he catches them and brings them down to the boiler room. He has some long held beef against Mickey Rosa, although its genesis is rather cloudy. Cole figures out that a team is attacking his casinos and is determined to stop them and prove his worth in order to keep his business afloat. When he does catch a counter, his hired thugs appear out of nowhere and no one bats an eye when they abduct people right off the casino floor and drag them to the back room. Of course, it is inevitable that Ben is going to get a beating.
Ben and the team are making regular visits to Las Vegas and the money rolls in. They live the high life in Vegas. In this world, the flat betting table minimum players can even get comped suites at the Hard Rock. Amazingly, the Hard Rock suite overlooks the fountain at the Bellagio. Even though the team seems to spend most of its time in a trendy bar, Ben manages to earn the $300K he needs for Harvard. Of course, there is no explanation about how a non-investing team member can accrue that much money in a relatively short period of time. It appears that Ben has never heard of a bank, since he hides his cash in the ceiling of his dorm room. You know that is going to be a problem as soon as you see Ben stash his cash.
The movie attempts to be a morality play that portrays the pitfalls of greed and avarice. The character development is nearly non-existent. The other team members are blank slates. The Mickey Rosa character is despicable and winds up betraying the team. It is hard to find sympathy for any of the main characters in the movie. I didn�t care what happened to them. The movie depicts card counters as shallow and greedy people with little in the way of moral values. It doesn�t tell us what motivates these people beyond money and sex. If there was redemption for them in the end, I didn�t see it.
For those of us who hoped that 21 would provide some education to the general public about blackjack, forget it. There is no mention of what makes a good game. Nothing is said about the poor quality of blackjack in today's world and no mention is made of 6:5 blackjack. The public isn't going to know much more about blackjack at the end of the movie than it already knew at the beginning. In fact, it may know less.
In blackjack terms, I�d say that 21 is a stiff.