Ben Campbell is a young, highly intelligent, student at M.I.T. in Boston who strives to succeed. Wanting a scholarship to transfer to Harvard School of Medicine with the desire to become a doctor, Ben learns that he cannot afford the $300,000 for the four to five years of schooling as he comes from a poor, working-class background. But one evening, Ben is introduced by his unorthodox math professor Micky Rosa into a small but secretive club of five. Students Jill, Choi, Kianna, and Fisher, who are being trained by Professor Rosa of the skill of card counting at blackjack. Intrigued by the desire to make money, Ben joins his new friends on secret weekend trips to Las Vegas where, using their skills of code talk and hand signals, they have Ben make hundreds of thousands of dollars in winning blackjack at casino after casino. Ben only wants to make enough money for the tuition to Harvard and then back out. But as fellow card counter, Jill Taylor, predicts, Ben becomes corrupted by greed ...Written by
According to Kevin Spacey, as part of their research for the film, they took some of the real players who were on the original team to Vegas. Although they weren't allowed to play, every time they wanted Spacey to up his bet, they would push up against his chair. He said, "I would win every time!" See more »
The MIT Blackjack Team operated primarily in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. The movie plays homage to this by having microfiche machines and storage cabinets in the room when Fisher initially recruits Ben to the team. When Ben travels to Vegas for the first time through Boston, he is screened by the TSA. The TSA wasn't formed until 2001, long after microfiche was being used or this movie took place. See more »
'Winner, winner, chicken dinner.' Those words had been dancing around my head all night. I mean, it's Vegas lore, that phrase. Just ask any of the old-time pit bosses, they'll know. It was a Chinese dealer at Binion's who was first credited with the line. He would shout it every time he dealt blackjack. That was over 40 years ago, and the words still catch. 'Winner, winner, chicken dinner.' Yeah, try it. I had heard it at least 14 times that night. I couldn't lose. First...
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Just as predictable yet enjoyable as the game depicted
Considering the risky pleasure generally associated with gambling and the seductive thrill of watching a heist or scam unfold, it should come as no surprise that 21, a film which combines the two aforementioned premises should excel at being enjoyable. And while the film may be very familiar ground to anyone with in any experience with Ocean's Eleven style crime capers, and the majority of the film's plot points verge on being almost laughably predictable, it is executed with enough exuberant flair to make it worthwhile in the midst of its formula.
A slow start gives the necessary exposition as to how a thoroughly ethical young MIT student (Sturgess)'s desperate need for money to attend Harvard medical school leads him to join a team of mathematical geniuses trained in blackjack card counting who routinely rip off Las Vegas casinos during weekends between class. However, this opening proves overlong, overly predictable, and largely unnecessary, dragging far too much before plunging into the film's real fun as Sturgess and his team are engulfed by the seductive glamour of Vegas and the thrill of the huge monetary takes. Some judicious editing, clearing away such unnecessary subplots (such as a robotics competition with Sturgess' tiresomely stereotypical nerdy friends) could have resulted in a far more streamlined and faster paced film.
Some viewers may take offence to the "Hollywoodizing" of the MIT team, with team members of different ethnicity largely shoved to the background in favour of the typically gorgeous Caucasian leads, a disconcertingly common practice in modern day cinema. However, the flashy MTV style cinematography and editing ably capture the engrossing spectacle of Vegas, and once the film gets going, it would be difficult to deny the sheer enjoyment of being swept up in the heady rush of quick wealth and all of its hedonistic trappings.
The film's quality cast add credulity to the frequently underwritten characters they portray. Jim Sturgess once again impresses as the ethical math prodigy slowly corrupted by a world of superficial glamour, his endearing charm putting an intriguing enough take on the "troubled but well meaning hero" archetype. As one might expect, Kevin Spacey effortlessly steals the show as the charismatic but ruthless professor managing the MIT card counting team, and Spacey's easygoing yet commanding presence is a profound boost to the film. Kate Bosworth contributes a typically flat performance, but given her token 'inevitable love interest' role, she fails to detract much from the film's overall quality. Lawrence Fishburne adds class, much needed dramatic weight and moments of grim humour to his antagonistic burly head of casino security, gradually catching on to the MIT team's scamming.
While the age old adage of 'style over substance' certainly holds true here, 21 may essentially epitomize the modern Hollywood crime caper film, but the formula hasn't quite run dry enough to overly detract from the enjoyment factor. The film's snappy visuals and strong casting are mostly enough to make up for a largely uninspired and frequently weak script. However, fans of similar works will not be disappointed, and for those willing to forgive the film's frequent delving into the wells of convention and accept entertainment over profundity, 21 should prove an ideal watch.
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