Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 March 2008
Source Columbia Pictures 35mm print
Categories The 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival
21 is centered on the exploits of a team of MIT students who, in the early 1990s, employed a card counting system to best casinos around the world for upwards of millions of dollars. The intrigue here is not in the result of the gamble, but in the mobilization: how a group of kids, essentially, schemed how to walk into casinos and leave with hundreds of thousands of dollars—legally. This lends itself well to cinematic appropriation, and I imagine the basic aspects of origin are left intact: the film glosses over how to travel through airport security with tens of thousands of dollars on your person, as well as the nomenclature for specific card counts (e.g. “sugar” uttered by a team member will mean the count is plus 8). These details are what distinguish 21, and are subordinated in service to familiar cinematic protocol, romance and suspense in particular.
21 shouldn’t be about romance and suspense, you see; it should be about machination—you should leave the film with at least a basic idea of how to count cards, and how to employ this talent with utmost discretion. And to its credit, 21 delivers the basic idea: blackjack is a game based on variable chance, how the odds change with subsequently drawn cards. The scheme originates with an MIT mathematics professor recruiting one of his more successful students to play on this secret team; about thirty minutes later, they’re in Vegas with fake IDs and no curfews. I imagine most films centered on gambling must be insulated with plot—one-hundred and eighteen minutes of card counting isn’t a movie, certainly, but the entire time I would have preferred the kids to have stayed in class.
The film opens with an egregious error in geography in the opening shot, pivoting around young Ben on the Massachusetts Avenue bridge in Boston, and then cutting to the Harvard Street bridge, some three miles east before his arrival on the MIT campus. This is of little relevance to those unfamiliar with the location, but examples the film’s preference for glamorization over the truth that is its most impressive feature. 21 is replete with other examples: Lawrence Fishburne enforcing his no card-counting policy (he might as well be carrying a satchel with “Conflict” stenciled on it, from which he threateningly procures brass knuckles), or Kevin Spacey inflecting extra punctuation into every word he studiously utters.
My problem with 21 is that it favors formula over its premise, exceedingly so, morphing into a story of Ben - the bright, uncontaminated MIT senior - and how this experience has fostered greed and lust. (The student Ben is based upon is Asian, but in the film he’s white and nerdy with an obvious handsomeness that becomes increasingly manifest.) These are easily diagnosable character traits in a Hollywood film, so the result is totally predictable, and here the circumstance - Las Vegas is a bevy of sinners, and encourages even the young stalwart Ben to compromise his ethics - is as well.
One example of this would be the romance that develops between Ben and one of his teammates. From the first time he and his friends eye her in a gym (she is boxing a punching bag with limp wrists and unrehearsed poise) you know there’s going to be a sex scene. And because 21 subscribes to the allure of Vegas and not how it is infiltrated with logic and quantification, the resultant sex scene occurs not in an MIT dorm room but in some magnificent suite with an incredible panoramic view of the Las Vegas strip. Seeing this you’re assured it must be the best part of the movie.
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