Sunday, April 7, 2013

21 - Simple math can be entertaining and profitable

21 (2008)
Crime, Drama, 123 minutes
Directed by Robert Luketic
Starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Laurence Fishburne

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is an MIT student who finishes top in his classes and is applying for a scholarship after being accepted into Harvard Medical School. We see him being interviewed as he attempts to secure the $300,000 that will enable him to enroll. Unfortunately, he's one of 76 applicants, and his rivals possess credentials similar to his own. In order to win the scholarship, he must write an essay that will dazzle the professor making the final decision.

Ben's life experience is unremarkable. He has a crush on a fellow student who is apparently hopelessly out of his reach, and his friends are geeks. He's serious and doesn't seem to have any fun, such as dating or socializing. What could he possibly write about?

That all changes when he impresses one of his professors, Micky Rosa (Spacey), during a lecture. He's invited to become part of a team coached privately by Micky, but this has nothing to do with school. Micky teaches him how to count cards, and explains that the system is certain to beat the odds if it is correctly applied. They plan to go to Las Vegas and win enormous amounts of money. While that sounds unlikely, Micky insists that it's not gambling at all. After a visit from Jill (Bosworth), at the store in which he earns $8 an hour, Ben eventually decides to join the team.

I'm sure that some of you are rolling your eyes. Can a system really beat the Vegas odds? Well, this story is based on true events, and the method of counting cards is surprisingly simple.

The title refers to both the best Blackjack hand, and the fact that Ben is about to become a 21-year-old. We see him learn how to keep the count. It begins at zero, and a point is added for cards between 2 and 5, while a point is subtracted if the dealer turns over a 10, Jack, Queen, King, or an Ace. Cards falling between 7 and 9 have no effect on the count.

The team consists of five students. Three sit at random tables to monitor the count. When the count is high, the odds favor the player over the house. The person then uses a prearranged signal and one of the remaining team members sits at the table and places large bets. A series of codewords is used to tell the high stakes player exactly what the count is. For example, "sweet" would mean that the count is +16, and highly favorable. The high stakes player then keeps track of the count and must have the discipline to quit when the odds are no longer favorable.

Sounds simple enough, right?

A large part of the movie is devoted to the action that takes place in Vegas. It's a glamorous lifestyle, completely different to Ben's Boston existence. If the movie works for you, you'll probably imagine yourself in that situation. The prospect of winning large amounts of money with very little risk is appealing. The risk portrayed in the movie comes in the form of casino security employee, Cole Williams (Fishburne). He's fully aware of the systems used by card-counters, as he used to do it himself. Although it's not illegal to count cards, casinos have the right to prevent people from playing at their tables. Williams has more violent methods than simply barring someone from playing, so he's the main villain in the story.

I wouldn't claim that 21 is original or unpredictable. You can probably guess some of the things that happen to Ben over the course of two hours. But, like many predictable stories, it's worth experiencing for the way in which it is told. If you are a fan of the main actors, find the thought of winning money appealing, or believe you have the abilities necessary to count cards yourself, you'll be thoroughly entertained. My favorite movie about cards is Rounders, but 21 is a close second.

I could have done without the flashbacks explaining the meaning every time a codeword was used, but that's a minor quibble.

Overall score 4/5

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