21 – Did It Bring Down The House?

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC 21 – Did It Bring Down The House?

Everyone that has ever stepped into a casino shares a not-so-secret fantasy. The fantasy may play out in different ways, but it’s typically something about how the hero goes on the run of a lifetime and wins so much cash that they fly home first class instead of coach, quits their job, and becomes one of the highest rollers that the casinos treat to luxury suites, gourmet meals, and limos.

Casinos are frequent movie locations and the theme of a regular guy turned high roller is somewhat a Hollywood staple; RainmanThe Hangover and Last Vegas being just three examples. In each of those films, our hero makes his fortune playing blackjack.



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The choice of blackjack as the life changing game is a perfectly logical one. Ever since Edward Thorp published Beat the Dealer in 1962, every person that knows anything about blackjack knows that it is mathematically possible to beat the game by counting cards. The film 21 gives a semi-historical account of how the principal could be used in real life.

In 21, our hero Ben Campbell is a very smart but a very broke senior math major at MIT.  He needs $300,000 to go to Harvard Medical School where he has been accepted. Ben has hopes of winning a prestigious scholarship which will solve all of his problems. An MIT math professor, Micky Rosa played by Kevin Spacey, invites Ben to join his blackjack team which consists of several other students. They met regularly to practice the math and perfect the art of card counting to become big winners.

Ben proves to be a star pupil and is soon one of the main team members. He spends weekends in luxury Las Vegas suites, rides in limos, goes to the best clubs, eats great meals, wins a pile of money, gets the girl, loses the girl, loses the money, gets the money and gets the girl.

21 was very successful because it showed a basically real-life example of how the common casino fantasy could play out. It also hit on another common real-life fantasy; the one where the geeky math guy gets the hot girl. While the movie had some plot twists and additions to make it a more entertaining story, the fact that the MIT Blackjack team (actually teams) was real and did in fact win lots of money is well known.

The film is one of my favorites for a number of reasons – with the fact that I am a blackjack player and a blackjack dealer in real life being two of the main ones – and a film that you should definitely see. You don’t have to have to fully understand the intricacies of card counting and blackjack, but a basic understanding of the rules of the game is worth knowing, to appreciate the film.

Part of the film’s allure is the realism, with Ben’s reasons for joining the team being perhaps the most realistic of all; he wants to impress the hot girl and he needs cash. He’s not looking to live the high roller lifestyle but doesn’t shy away and in fact enjoys the perks that come with being a high roller.

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While some of the characters in the movies are “old school” Vegas stereotypes, they are well developed and essential to the story. The actual game play is probably the most accurate of any movie ever filmed. If the depiction of the treatment the casinos lavish upon high rollers has any fault it is in the fact that it is understated rather than overblown.

In one scene, the team enlists the aid of a group of strippers to help them solve a problem. In many ways this one part of the story perfectly captures the “anything is possible” attitude that permeates the world’s largest adult amusement park.

I do take issue with two very small aspects of the film.

First, Ben has two close friends at MIT. It is not logical that any twenty-two or twenty-three year old is going to keep the roller coaster thrills of being a Vegas high-roller a secret from the people who are arguably his best friends.

Second, I realize that the suspension of disbelieve is an imperative for film enjoyment. However, to expect the audience to believe that a super-smart overachieving MIT math geek who becomes part of a blackjack team that goes to Las Vegas every weekend (and comes back with tens of thousands in winnings) is incapable of finding a better place to hide a hundred thousand dollars than above the ceiling tiles of his dorm room is just too much of a stretch.

Those two small issues aside, 21 is a great film. If you have never played a hand of blackjack in your life, it will surely tempt you to learn the rules and give the game a shot.  If you are a long time player, it will give you a glimpse at why, at least in the back of your mind, you enjoy playing the game.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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