Back-To-School Month: "21" Review

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

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Back-To-School Month: "21" Review

Rating: PG-13 (sexual content including partial nudity and some violence)
Length: 123 minutes
Release Date: March 28, 2008
Directed by: Robert Luketic
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

As with many movies based on real events, "21" has at least one direct competitor that beat it to the theaters. But "21" is a bigger-budget production with a more talented cast. Audiences who're interested in how a group of MIT students outsmarted every big casino in Vegas will enjoy this engaging portrayal. Those who want to know more about the real-life events can pick up the book on which the movie is based,Bringing Down the Houseby Ben Mezrich. Of course, there are a few Hollywood-inspired differences between the book and the movie.

In "21," the audience's heartstrings are tugged by the plight of an MIT student named Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, "Cloud Atlas") who can't afford graduate school. He is not from a rich family as so many of his classmates are and grows increasingly frustrated because his dream of becoming a doctor is slipping through his fingers. A well-meaning professor (Kevin Spacey, "Pay It Forward"), Micky Rosa, takes him aside and lets him know about a special earning opportunity, the chance to join a group ofstudents that fly to Las Vegas on weekends and make small fortunes by counting cards at the blackjack tables. The title of the movie is derived from the card game 21.

Part of the allure of "21" is that it is based on a true story. This element alone may have contributed to audiences flocking to theaters even after the flop of the previous low-budget version of this story. This version is strictly loyal to the book but for a handful of details. Rosa is not in the nonfiction book, for instance, and Campbell wasn't introduced to the club for altruistic purposes. The real Campbell also did not risk missing out on the chance to attend a Harvard graduate program. He just wanted to know how his friends always had money to burn.

In spite of our culture's fascination with money, the Campbell rags-to-riches element was needed to win audiences over. The lack of it may have been why "The Last Casino" didn't do very well in theaters. Audiences need a reason to rally behind Campbell's character and celebrate his success. It also makes his fall from grace bittersweet. Knowing that the real Campbell wasn't worried about school options or paying bills makes his success a little less dazzling and the way he and his friends were seduced by greed seedier.

There were other dramatic changes that were not as ingenious as the Campbell back story. In the nonfiction book, there are no major ramifications to counting cards. The practice is not illegal, and all the major casinos can do is blacklist those they suspect of doing this. Certain parts of the film are also predictable, although the way things played out in reality was much more unexpected. Critics of the film have noted this widely, along with how the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas plays a major role in a film that has more to do with cold and clammy hands in Boston and academia. But audiences didn't flock to theaters to get a look at Vegas. They went to see kids who use their brains to make big bucks under the watchful eye of seasoned casino security guards such as the persevering Cold Williams (Laurence Fishburne, "The Matrix").

Fans of "21" love the casting choices—particularly Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne—and feel the script does a good job at recreating the sense of chaos that likely accompanied the real-life events. Flying from coast to coast to gamble under the scrutiny of casino cops and flying back with tens of thousands of dollars to spend would leave any young person feeling overwhelmed. The director, Robert Luketic, employs a number of cinematic techniques to increase this sense of wildness and lunacy.

Not only do viewers get caught up in that, but if they know the story well enough, they may delight in the cameos of members of the real MIT group throughout the movie. For instance, the man who founded the group is seen playing in a corner of a Chinese casino. The dealer at this same place, who shouts, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner," is another former player, Henry Houh. Even the real-life Campbell, Jeff Ma, appears as the main blackjack dealer in one of the casino scenes.

Audiences were thrilled by "21," helping to make it the top box-office draw the first two weeks after its release. Some critics, however, had issues with the structure of the film and its formulaic elements. But the movie succeeds in engaging the viewer in ways previous versions of this story such as "The Last Casino" did not.

Rating 3.5 of 5