So I started going through my film collection alphabetically, starting with 21, the true story of the MIT card counting team who took the Vegas casinos for millions of dollars.
This is a film I’ve meant to get round to watching for years, and finally found time to watch earlier this week. The first thing I’ll point out is that all though this is based on a true story, a lot of dramatic license has been taken. The book the film is based on, Bringing Down the House, is a history of the MIT card counting team, which looks back over at over 30 years of history – and 21 focuses on a single team, in one year, and more precisely on one member, Ben Campbell. (Jim Sturgess)
The story revolves around Ben, a highly intelligent MIT student who is accepted into Harvard med, bit can’t afford the three hundred thousand dollar tuition. His eight dollar an hour job selling ties and suits won’t cut it. When he is invited by his teacher Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) to learn to count cards, join a secret blackjack team and make millions in Vegas, then, he can’t refuse the opportunity – although its only with the insistence of the girl he likes that he accepts.
With the framing method of the Harvard Scholarship interview you see the story first near its end, as pit bosses chase Ben and the team out of the casino, before we go back to the beginning and see it all unfold. Initially planning to only stay with the team until he has the tuition, Ben gets greedy. He falls for the Vegas life – the parties, the penthouses – he gets the girl, he mucks up, is betrayed, and left with nothing is forced to get his own back. Sound predictable? It is. Most people can see it telegraphed from the beginning. Perhaps a less Hollywood-y story based more around the book would be much more interesting. Yet the filmography and acting is good enough to carry out the weak, and somewhat mundane story.
As mentioned above, the acting is top notch, Spacey is brilliant as ever as the mentor-turned-villain, and Kate Bosworth stands out as the glamorous love interest and while underutilised, her performance is first-rate. The star of the film, however, is Sturgess, who is utterly convincing as Ben, a kid who has had no wins throughout his life, who has always stood on the sidelines, never popular, concentrating on his studies over everything else. Given the chance at a new life, to be all the things he never could be, he jumps at it – Sturgess portrays it brilliant, and his reaction when it is all taken away from Ben is a highlight.
The cinematography and direction take a good amount of pressure off the story, with slick cuts and clever contrast between the two primary locations – Vegas is shot in vibrant colour, whether the constant sunshine or the unrelenting neon, bright yellows, reds, and blues. Boston on the other hand is low contrast, dark green and blues, snowy and cold -reflecting Ben’s view off the world. Vegas is glamour, it’s the life he wants, the dream, whereas Boston and MIT are reality, the dull and tedious life Ben is escaping from. The intercuts of the Casino tables and the lessons, the phrases and the count are also well cut and shot, pulling the viewer in.
21 story is predictable, and shows nothing new, but the slick filming and excellent performances by the talented cast are enjoyable to watch. It’s not a must watch, but there are alot worse ways to spend an evening in front of the TV 5/10
Just an end note… The system of card counting used seems remarkably easy and some behind the scenes research does make me wonder if it would actually work, and I can’t help but wonder if some of my money related challenges could be completed earlier if I learnt about this a bit more…