GRAB YOUR POPCORN FOR THIS ONE: Revisiting Robert Luketic’s 2008 Classic 21 Starring Jim Sturgess And Kate Bosworth
From the 1970s to the 1990s, a group of US students proved to the world that actually, the House doesn’t always win.
When a certain Bill Kaplan turned $1,000 into $35,000 within just nine months in 1977 by playing cards, he had no idea that, two decades later, he’d be heading up a team of professional card counters who would be playing blackjack worldwide. But, lead them he did, and in the Golden Age of casino gaming, the MIT Blackjack team – a group of talented current and ex-students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – famously took on ‘the house’ at some of the most prestigious casinos in the world, and won.
Their escapades brought card counting to public attention and inspired books, television series, and movies worldwide, including a 2008 heist film directed by Robert Luketic and produced by Kevin Spacey.
Inspired by the antics of the team, or rather writer Ben Mezrich’s compilation of said antics, Bringing Down The House, 21 tells the tale of Ben Campbell (Sturgess), an exceptionally gifted degree student at MIT whose ultimate goal is to go to Harvard Medical School. Unfortunately for this brainiac science geek, the tuition comes at a price: a cool $300,000 - hardly spare change.
Enter Mickey Rosa (Spacey), by way of Campbell’s classmates. Rosa is the mind behind a secret club of blackjack players, comprised of select MIT students. The club has a grand scheme in mind - win big in Vegas after getting to grips with the practice of card counting. Initially hesitant, Campbell agrees to join them, and so begins his initiation into the game of blackjack, along with experiencing a bit of romance and the trials and tribulations of friendship along the way.
Being a team comprised of such gifted maths and science brains, the students, naturally, see the big wins begin to pile up. However, they soon catch the eye of loss prevention specialist Cole Williams (Fishburne), who suspects that something else might be at work other than the students’ natural born propensity for playing the game.
Needless to say, Williams’ is anti-card counting (even though the practice then, much like now, is far from illegal) and he makes it his mission to stop the MIT Blackjack Team in its tracks.
So, this is a film about Blackjack...or is it?
Blackjack is one of the most popular casino games in existence. For those who don't know about the history of blackjack, the game itself first originated all the way back in 17th Century Spain. Nowadays, of course, both brick and mortar casinos and online platforms all over the world offer blackjack as standard.
Being such a popular game, it’s also made a few guest appearances in such hit films as The Hangover, Croupier, and, of course, Rain Man, but 21 is the only movie so far that features the game as one of its main stars...to varying effect.
Card buffs will instantly be able to spot the flaws and errors that Luketic has made when it comes to the casino scenes, but for the rest of us, those moments are entertaining enough and achieved the desired effect. Where Luketic went majorly wrong, however, was to take us down a melodramatic subplot (which, incidentally, bears no resemblance to the actual real-life events that inspired the movie in the first place) and away from the casino action.
The final verdict
21 could have been a truly fascinating glimpse inside the thrilling world of the MIT team. Solid performances from Spacey and Fishburn keep the film ticking over nicely, with both veteran actors clearly delivering their portrayals with relish. Burgess is easily the standout star of the movie. Kate Bosworth, however, deserved a lot more than the generic “female love interest” role of Jill – and all the needless, sappy melodrama that came along with it.
In summary, 21’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a hard-hitting look inside the world of professional casino gaming or simply a piece of entertaining fluff. And by falling somewhere in the middle, it, unfortunately, fails to hit the mark on both counts.