’21’ movie review: dull card counting thriller overplays its hand

Turning the true story of the Vegas-breaking MIT card counting team into a rambling bore is quite the task, but director Robert Luketic and scribes Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb give it their best with 21 (an impossibly bland title that only hints at the content within). 

Inherently compelling source material is Hollywood-ized to the point where we know this is a (mostly) true story, and we still don’t buy any of it; the cavalcade of cliché characters and plot devices is wearying. Still, the pic deals nuanced performances from Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne and the requisite amount of Vegas glitz and glam; it isn’t all bad.

Outlined in the novel Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Blackjack team was a group of college students, led by the mysterious Mr. M, who learned how to play blackjack by the book, count cards, and play as a team. 

They formed an official company and went to Las Vegas, where, for a while, they made a killing. 21 follows the very basic outline of this, replacing Mr. M with an arrogant Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), and giving us a team of young students as protags including Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) and Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth). 

Film doesn’t realize, or care, how fascinating the factual details of the story may be, instead choosing to barrage us with the flashy but dull rise and fall of the youths, particularly Ben. By the end we learn…nothing that we didn’t already know.

Most disappointingly, film never delves into the nitty-gritty of card counting, perhaps in an attempt to avoid being a how-to guide for potential counters. Yet a how-to guide would be far more compelling than this generic mediocrity. 

Watch the History Channel’s TV special Breaking Vegas for a far more interesting look at the MIT card counting team(s), an improvement over this film simply because it sticks to the facts and shows us exactly what the team did, how they did it, and what happened to them.

One aspect of the film I did like: Laurence Fishburne’s role as a casino security enforcer whose position is slowly being phased out by high-tech computers; Fishburne is terrific, and the role has the kind of depth that the rest of the film is sorely lacking. 

Spacey has had a long run of mediocre films since an outstanding run in the mid-to-late ‘90’s, and though 21 certainly doesn’t change that, it gives the actor one of the meatier roles he’s had in awhile, and the picture occasionally comes to life when he’s on the screen. 

Unfortunately, that isn’t enough, and the rest of the cast is bland, bland, bland; Sturgess and Bosworth give it their best but the characters are so poorly written we never get a feel for them.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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