Fri, May 16, 2008 - Page 16 News List

‘21’ doesn’t know when to fold ’em

Robert Luketic has produced an overly formulaic movie ‘inspired by’ a true story about the college students who took Las Vegas casinos for millions


Playing the system might be a smart blackjack strategy, but it’s not a good way to make a movie.


If the thrill of gambling were really about winning, there would be too few gamblers to support the multibillion-US dollar Vegas gambling industry. Everybody knows that the odds are predetermined to favor the house, and that people play the games for the rush, not the payoff. Bettors are many; winners are few. That’s what makes it a reliably profitable business. Like insurance. The premiums for participating in the game outweigh the payouts the company makes as incentives to keep the players playing.

So, how exciting would it be if, say, somebody devised a system that used simple math to give a blackjack player the edge over the dealer? 21 is “inspired by” the real-life story of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students who took Las Vegas casinos for millions, but has been reshaped to fit a simple movie template — and it’s nearly as much fun as watching an insurance professional compute actuarial tables.

In 21, the worst thing a gamester can be accused of is gambling. “Don’t give in to your emotions,” MIT professor Micky Rosa tells his blackjack students. “Play the system.” Good advice for a card-counting scheme. Bad advice for a movie. If you want to see how a formatted screenplay looks when it’s actually on the screen (you can just about count the page numbers as they flip by, and maybe measure the margins, too), 21 may provide a practical lesson: How to follow all the “rules” and end up with zero. It’s not unwatchable, but you could watch it with your eyeballs tied behind your back and enjoy it just as much.

Here’s another example of a good story turned into a purely generic one — no doubt with the aid of a Bob McKee screenwriting seminar and textbook.

Film Notes


DIRECTED BY: Robert Luketic

STARRING: Jim Sturgess (Ben Campbell), Kate Bosworth (Jill Taylor), Laurence Fishburne (Cole Williams), Kevin Spacey (Micky Rosa), Aaron Yoo (Choi), Liza Lapira (Kianna), Jacob Pitts (Fisher)



Act I: MIT undergrad Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a smart-nerd Bostonian white guy working with his best friends (a fat guy and a Persian-American guy) on a project for a robotics competition. He really needs a US$300,000 scholarship to get into Harvard Medical School, but he’s only one of 72 talented prospects. He’s recruited by professor Rosa (Kevin Spacey) to join a secret cabal of card-counters with a scheme to hit Vegas on weekends and make a fortune. He resists. A Beautiful Girl (Kate Bosworth) attempts to woo him. He resists. OK, he really needs the money, so he joins up — but just until he can get the money he needs for school. He learns the blackjack system in a montage sequence or two and passes the test. The Beautiful Girl rebuffs his advances in an attempt to maintain a strictly professional relationship.

Act II: The team goes to Vegas and they win. Another montage sequence? Maybe. It’s getting a little fuzzy. But wait: A casino security guy named Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) starts to notice something — and not a moment too soon because he’s losing all his business to high-tech biometric face-recognition software. Technology! Drat! Card-counting isn’t illegal, but the casinos want you to know that if you’re caught doing it, they might take you down in the basement and beat the living craps out of you.

The Hard Rock Casino comps Beautiful Girl a suite in which she and Ben enjoy a brief, soft-focus sex-scene montage. “It seemed too good to be true,” Ben says in voice-over. “And it felt like it was never going to end.” It does. Ben is not the same guy he was back in Boston. He loses — money, his friends, the Beautiful Girl, his mentor, everything. Bummer.

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