21: Movie Review


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The MIT Blackjack Team was a collection of gifted math students who combined forces and, by use of various card counting techniques, managed to outsmart numerous casino's and beat the game of blackjack. The team goes all the way back to the 1979, when MIT offered a mini-course entitled "How to Gamble if You Must," which I assume required additional work from home such as placing bets on a game of beer-pong until four A.M. while getting wasted. All in the name of mathematics, of course. It wasn't until the early 1980's that the team began to be managed like a business, and actually turn a successful profit.

Although I know little beyond what wikipedia has informed me about the actual MIT Blackjack Team, I know I am far more fascinated with the real-life story than the over-dramatized (and apparently fictional) melodrama that the film "21" portrays. The film is based off of the nonfiction novel "Bringing Down the House," which although based off of the true story of the team of gambling math geniuses, was also highly fictionalized.

So what we have here is a movie that enhances the fictional elements of a somewhat already fictional story. Although the most notable change for some was the fact that the team went from being entirely Asian to mostly Caucasion, for me I didn't really feel entirely bothered by it. I was a little confused in it's chosen time period, which is present day. Then again, in a way, 21 is kind of like an old folk tale, one that is constantly repeated until the version that exists is hardly even recognizable to the one that actually occured. It's hardly even worth mentioning that it is based off of a true story at all by this point.

So really all we have to look at is the story as a narrative, which reads the same as an after-school special. Boy has friends but is poor, boy discovers his talent, get's overwhelmed by his talent, betrays his friends, gets rich, gets poor again, and then discovers his friends again. That, and there's also the love interest.

It's fairly cut-and-paste, but it's there for a reason. It's entertaining. And when you throw wild cards like Kevin Spacey and Lawrence Fishburn into the mix, things become especially exciting to watch. The extemes in personalities work great in contrast to eachother, and tension builds quite nicely.

The only problem here is that the film is apparently only focused on the audience that has been seeking Jim Sturgess to do anything on screen after singing Strawberry Fields Forever. And when I say "anything," what I mean to say is "make out" with Kate Bosworth. The truly fascinating characters, the one's pulling the manipulative strings, are kept away from the viewers eyes despite the fact that we can't look away from them. We have the professor-turned-businessman with a cold sense for profit, the casino detective who arms himself with brute force rather than MIT brians, and all we want to see is these two thugs compete. Instead we are treated to watching Ben and Jill flirt for a majority of the trip.

What I personally felt most cheated over was the character's utter lack of motivation, or I should say convincing motivation. The character of Ben is only driven by his need to raise funds for going to Harvard Medical school, all the while claiming that the games of blackjack are "not for the money." Somehow that motivation lands flat when you consider how much he'll be making after medical school, or more specifically, his drive for the profession or the status as a college student. I was more convinced Ben wanted to go to Harvard than be an actual doctor, which actually made me like him a lot less.

Still, I watched all of 21 without feeling cheated, which is more than you can say for most gambles. It's entertaining, and satisfying at it's conclusion. But it's forgettable. So when it comes down to it, 21 becomes a great movie to watch when it ends up showing repeatedly on TNT, which I'm sure it will.


Anonymous said...

Contrary to what seems to be posted on many of the blogs, the MIT Blackjack Team over all of its years was only about 15%-20% Asian.

Zack Newcott said...

Whoa. That's pretty crazy. I did read that tons of blogs were criticizing Jeff Ma, the original inspiration for the story, as being a "race-traitor" for (I assume) letting Jim Sturgess play his character. It's just absurd. Fun fact though, Jeff Ma does appear as a dealer in the film. Coolness.