A blur of neon lights, hip clubs, and thousands of dollars in cash and chips – that is the simplest summary of Robert Luketic’s 21.
The film is based on the true story of a group of math elite M.I.T. students that took Las Vegas casinos for millions in the mid-1990s by counting cards and ‘crushing’ blackjack tables. The team’s big player and basis for Jim Sturgess’ character was Jeff Ma. But if you want to know what really happened, you should pick up Ben Mezrich’s book, Bringing Down the House.
Ben Campbell (Sturgess) lives out the archetypal rags-to-riches-to-trouble story seen in most gambling movies. Ben works in a men’s clothing store to pay his way but sees no hope when he discovers his dream to attend Harvard Med will run $300,000. When he’s approached by a classmate and invited into the fold by Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), his life changes and doors open. Spending weekends in Vegas, the team makes their wages then parties like rock stars. The only thing in their way is “loss prevention” specialist, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), whose biggest threat is more painful than banishment.
Within a culture obsessed with gambling, filmmakers seem to have hoped the contagiousness of counting cards and the idea of beating the house would be enough to keep audiences engaged. Unfortunately, despite the use of dramatic license to add a love interest (Kate Bosworth) and increase the danger, the story is weak and the novelty fades.
Luckily, Sturgess has an inherent charm that leaps off the screen, dominating scenes (even with Spacey), and his task of carrying the film is helped by Aaron Yoo’s joker Choi.
21 never really explores the seedy underbelly, devious tactics or helpless addiction that actually shapes Las Vegas. Instead, it is a flashy ride whose sole purpose is to entertain – just as a casino would have you believe is the purpose of its existence – and in that it mostly succeeds.