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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

21 (review)

There were a lot of things that made me sit up and say, “Hey now!” with last year’s Across the Universe, but the one that sticks with me still was getting a wonderful shiver running up my back watching its young unknown leading man, Jim Sturgess, and knowing, absolutely knowing, that I was seeing a future major star in the making. That movie didn’t do it for him, and this one might not either, but his day is coming — mark my words. Sturgess (who has a small part in The Other Boleyn Girl, too) is the best reason to check out 21, which is almost entirely preposterous — never mind that it’s apparently based on a true story — and yet somehow wonderfully entertaining at the same time. That’s mostly due to Sturgess: his Ben Campbell, poor MIT undergrad desperate to raise 300 grand for Harvard Med, gets entangled with a gang of whiz-kid card counters who make regular killings at Vegas blackjack tables. Need I tell you they are responsible for sweetly geeky Ben metamorphosing into a slick monster? The mechanics of how they run their scam are fascinating, but the sheer dumb implausibility of how they utterly fail to shield themselves from watchful casino eyes — even to the point of returning to the same casino over and over again — beggar belief. Oh, and I forgot to mention Kevin Spacey, here as the mathematics prof Fagin to his quasi criminal student card sharps. That’s how good Sturgess is: he steals the movie from a regular movie thief like Spacey.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Ide Cyan

    Had you heard about the white-washing of the cast for this movie? The real students involved in this were mostly Asian guys, and yet they cast a white guy in the leading role.

    (There was a Canadian version of this movie, entitled “The Last Casino”, that came out a few years ago, which actually addressed the racial issue of the conspicuousness of young white guys betting large sums of money.)

  • MaryAnn

    This movie is not the story of the real guys, but only inspired by it. I don’t know how big an issue we should make of it.

    What’s conspicuous about young white guys betting large sums of money?

  • jt

    Maryanne: I live in Las Vegas, so I can answer that. Any dealer can tell you that it’s pretty unusual for young, 20-something American kids to lose hundreds of thousands of bucks in Vegas, but not nearly as unusual to see young Asian kids do it. This is both because there are just more young Asian millionaires than there are young American millionaires in the world (especially when the book takes place, years before the dot-com boom), and also because gambling is more central to Asian culture than to American culture. Most American kids would rather buy Ferraris or beach houses than gamble, but with Asian kids, it’s the exact opposite. There’s a reason why casinos in Macau (China) today make five times as much money as casinos in Vegas. All you have to do is look in a Vegas casino high-roller room today — on the regular floor the majority of gamblers are caucasian, but in the high-roller room, at least 3/4 of the players are Asian.

    The book points out that the real-life MIT professor intentionally recruited Asian students for the team just for this reason. When a white kid bets a hundred thousand, the pit boss will start wondering who the kid is and whether he knows him (is he a movie star, a member of the Kennedy family), but when an Asian kid bets 100K, the pit boss just assumes his Dad runs Sony or Toyota or something and doesn’t ask questions.

  • MaryAnn

    (especially when the book takes place, years before the dot-com boom)

    Okay, but the movie explicitly takes place after 9/11 (airport security procedures are definitely after that event).

  • jt

    Hey Maryann: I haven’t seen the movie yet, but if it’s post-911, then that’s just more evidence that Hollywood ruined a great true story that would’ve stood well on its own. In real life, after the MIT kids wiped out Vegas in the 90’s, the Vegas casinos changed the way they deal blackjack. Nowadays, most casinos use automatic shuffling machines instead of hand shuffling (unless you’re playing single-deck), and dealers are required to shuffle more frequently and less deeply into the shoe specifically to make card-counting more difficult. For these reasons, it’s been impossible since the late 90’s to do what the MIT kids did, which is why this story couldn’t have happened after 9-11 and why it can never happen again.

  • MaryAnn

    Obviously, then, this movie exists in a world in which no one had yet beaten the casinos at blackjack. Perhaps it’s a fantasy world now, but still…

  • JoshDM

    I saw 21 a few months ago while watching the History Channel (or one of those other similar ones).

    It was called “Breaking Las Vegas” (or similar). Very excellent documentary about what went into the whole original MIT team that attacked Vegas (and Reno and a number of other places).

    Having seen it, I have no desire to see 21.

    The main protagonist was Russian. And they interviewed many of the participants. One of the primary guys was Asian, but there were a number of Caucasian men and women as well.

  • Mark Lambert

    I think some folks are entirely too hung up on the connection to the real life events that inspired 21, and I’m not quite sure why. Many movies are “inspired by” which translates to “barely have anything to do with” and folks seem to not notice. In this case, it has become a bit of a crusade on the internet for some reason. Maybe a general defensiveness of geek cultural icons I guess (and no offense – I’m definitely a geek myself)

    As a movie though (one LOOSELY INSPIRED BY real events), I felt 21 fell flat. It had some interesting high points and I including the performances of the young stars which were lively and generally believable, if a bit cliched. Spacey phoned it in but was great as always. Sort of a sinister version of his character in “Pay it Forward”.

    Of course the Hollywood version of these “true events” strains credulity to the absolute breaking point (and then breaks it), but thats to be expected from this type of fim. As an aside for MaryAnn, they were sticking to the one casino because it was the only place without the facial recognition software – that was the whole subplot around “Old School” Lawrence Fishburne’s increasing irrelevance in the “new Vegas”.

    Overall an entirely forgettable movie that was decent for a bit of escapism if you like a celebration of gross excess tied to a minor (MINOR) cautionary morality lesson.

    I agree on Sturgess, but he has to pick his next vehicle carefully or he will get lost among the crowd of new up and comers.

  • MaryAnn

    they were sticking to the one casino because it was the only place without the facial recognition software

    Well, that’s true. But why not stay in a different casino. Or at least not all stay in the same room! It’s like they wanted to get caught.

  • Miguel

    why would someone keep hundreds of thousands of dollars, CASH, ‘hidden’ in a dorm room?
    if what they were doing is not illegal, as we’re told a couple of times:
    a) why not put it in the bank, and
    b) the casinos might be able to ban them, but can they get away with physical violence and threats just like that?

  • MaryAnn

    Even if it were illegal, you can still put money in a bank: you just rent a safety deposit box and put it in there.

  • Miguel

    Some would say that the money issue is to create conflict in the story, but I wonder if there’s anyone who saw him put the money up there and didn’t think that it would be stolen, or there would be a fire, or something to make him lose it. It’s so painfully obvious and against the supposed super intelligence of the character!
    I guess he had a ‘Pentium’ mind (is that how they call it?), but a commodore 64 common sense.

  • Jaden

    uhhh they DO go to different casinoes. i saw at least three different ones in the film. Okay the main one was planet hollywood but they also went to a different one in the scene where ben loses all the money and yet another one when he and the group return only to get ratted out by mickey. see laurence fishbourne (or cole) is like a security company and the 3 different casinoes are its clients, which is why he can bust them nomatter which casino theyre in. i agree that the dorm room money thing was ridiculous but as long as it furthured the plot i made my peace with it since i loved the movie so much.
    I LOVE THIS MOVIE. cant wait till im 21 and can go to vegas…only 7 more years.

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