As the world struggled to get to grips with a pandemic that kept us indoors twiddling our thumbs, thousands of new hobbies came out, while some old favorites rose from rekindled ashes. Watching movies and visiting online casinos topped the list of preferred pastimes, and the 2008 movie aptly called ’21’ brings both of these together.
For those of you still in the dark, 21 is another name for blackjack, a popular casino card game requiring some skill, and the inspiration behind the title. I’ve tried my hand at blackjack a few times myself with dismal results, so I reckoned watching six MIT students younger than myself become millionaires playing it might teach me some tricks. In fact, after finishing the film, I can recommend that nowadays you can just try this blackjack strategy from home in online casinos. My second reason for watching was Kevin Spacey (who I’ve been in love with since American Beauty) and his performance as Mickey Rosa, the genius mastermind behind the whole plot, certainly doesn’t disappoint. Hot on his heels comes Jim Sturgess, who plays the lead (Ben Campbell), a broke MIT student who is refused entry to Harvard Medical School due to impossibly high tuition fees.
Based on a true story (the novel Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich), the plot is tight and slick as the game itself from the moment Rosa, Ben’s somewhat eccentric math professor, introduces the lad to a small group of students who he is training to count cards in blackjack. Spotting a way to pay off his school fees, Ben joins the group for a travel to Las Vegas, for ‘beating the house’ and making millions with their practised strategy. The ending is rather disappointingly foreshadowed by one of Ben’s card-counting partners, who predicts that Ben will eventually be overcome by greed – and this is exactly what happens. Enter Cole Williams; villain extraordinaire (Laurence Fishburn), whose hatred for Rosa leads him to attempt to ruin all the group has worked for, and you’ve got a movie that has you forgetting where you’ve put your popcorn.
Skill and high stakes abound in this movie where the accuracy of the portrayed characters is usurped only by the thrilling Las Vegas ambience. The action at the table is fast-paced and smoother than you would ever see it, hoisting the game of 21 high into realms of richness and mystery. The story is based on real events, and what happens onscreen is not as far removed from real life as others have been. Add the romantic love interest (for what hero could do without one?) and the movie ticks all the boxes.
For me, the best parts all revolve around the table when action was fast-paced and the characters pulled off their best poker faces, although I wished it could’ve started off earlier. As a personal fan of The Big Bang Theory, the dialogue was pleasingly geeky, but generally free of jargon, with the soundtrack falling just a little short.
Is 21 worth watching? In a word, yes (if only to watch Kevin Spacey). But, all jokes aside, though ’21’ may fall short in some areas, the acting is great, the plot interesting, and the blackjack thoroughly exciting. So, even if you’re just in it for the cards, that’s certainly reason enough.