Gambling stories often provide an interesting backdrop to a movie, especially when they involved gifted individuals gaming the casino, as in Rain Man, or academics pulling together to challenge the probabilities and mathematics underpinning gambling games. There is something about the plucky attitude of those that seek to use their wits and ingenuity to find new ways of winning from casinos that makes for a gripping story, and that’s exactly why 2008’s 21 is such a watchable film.
21 stars Kevin Spacey alongside Jim Sturgess, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Bosworth. It charts the true story of a team of blackjack players drawn from MIT, who under the guidance of their inspirational tutor, pull together to form a crack team of blackjack ninjas, ready to relieve casinos in Vegas of their money. The film is based on the story as told by Ben Mezrich in his book, Bringing Down the House, and was released to a largely positive reception – despite some initial concerns over casting choices.
21 has so far stood the test of time, and it’s still a film gambling fans will be instantly drawn towards. But how does the plot unfold, and who exactly will find this the kind of film they want to watch further?
Ben Campbell, played by Sturgess, is a talented maths student, who wants to move on to studying medicine. However, his fee for entry into Harvard stands at $300,000, more than he can afford to pay. The scholarship place that covers the fees is highly competitive, and Campbell feels he is unlikely to have a shot at winning the scholarship, based on the calibre of the competition.
His maths professor at MIT, played by Kevin Spacey, poses him a mathematical challenge, which Campbell is readily and correctly able to solve. The professor uncovers a 97% mark in one of Campbell’s papers, and immediately recognises the talent he possesses for numbers. The professor invites Campbell to join his blackjack team – an offer that is initially refused by Campbell.
After he is convinced to take part, the team set about learning card counting techniques, as devised by Edward O. Thorp, before taking them to Vegas. But as you might imagine, there are setbacks along the way, including substantial losses of over 200,000.00, as Campbell reels from relationship troubles. Can Campbell win the money back, and win enough to pay for his goal? Will he ever make it to medical school, or will the allure of gambling for big money distract Campbell from his goal?
Despite controversy over the casting of some of the characters, the film was generally well received, with strong performances from those who were ultimately chosen for the relevant parts. The film wasn’t exactly a critics’ favourite at the time, with many feeling the original story had been toned down for the film, or had otherwise been made less engaging and enjoyable than it should have been.
But 21 is another of those films that finds its audience, and becomes hugely popular within that niche. Anyone who enjoys gambling stories, or has been to university, will enjoy elements of this film. Similarly, if you’re just looking for a watch that will keep you entertained, while admiring the skills and effort on display, you’ll love the story that 21 creates. Maybe this has even inspired you to play blackjack and test your basic strategy and card counting skills.
It’s made all the more interesting by its underpinnings in the true story of the MIT blackjack team, although there is some debate as to how much the film portrayal deviates from the book. Nevertheless, this is a film that will likely still be enjoyed by gambling fans for years to come, and a good representation of the efforts by that now-famous team from MIT.