2 hours, 3 minutes
I have a special fondness for movies about gamblers. "The Cincinnati Kid," "The Hustler," "Rounders"; each of these are tense and action-packed, but have a special handicap. There's generally no real action in movies like this, just a lot of people sitting around playing a game, and with card-playing movies, it's even tougher.
At least with "The Hustler" and its sequel "The Color of Money" there are amazing pool shots to balance the hours of shady characters standing around in a smoky bar. With movies about poker or, as in this week's film, blackjack, there's the special challenge of making what is, essentially, a quiet, solitary strategy game seem as dangerous as a high-speed chase or a shoot-out. I think, in the end, it all comes down to the money. It's the reason you never see movies made about the high-tension world of Spades. With gambling comes the threat of the loss of a lot of money, which the loser inevitably doesn't have, and then the violence which naturally comes from stiffing the dark underworld types who populate said gambling movies. "21," Hollywood's latest foray into the gambling world, doesn't really deal with underworld figures, though there are certainly some nefarious characters to be reckoned with. It's a solid, if somewhat MTV-esque entry into a very colorful genre.
"21" advertises itself as being based on a true story, but the claims to veracity are a little stretched. The basic premise is this: a group of MIT math whizzes, led by their entrepreneurial professor, come up with a way to beat the system, as it were a mathematical solution to the game of blackjack. For those who've never played it, blackjack, or 21 is a pretty simple game. You get two cards, then you decide if you want more, the goal being that you get a total card count as close to the number 21 as you can. Face cards count for 10, and the ace gets to count as either 1 or 11. You're playing against the dealer who is required to take a certain number of cards, so if he goes over, or busts, then you win.
The MIT geniuses figure that if they have an idea of what cards are coming next, it'll increase their odds of winning. Counting cards is not an unknown phenomenon. "Rain Man" introduced the mainstream of America to it 20 years ago, but I imagine it's been around as long as the game has. The idea is that there are only a certain number of cards in a deck, and as they are played through the statistical likelihood of getting the cards you want changes. If you can keep track of what's been played, you can better make your bets. It's different from cheating, because you're not doing anything but keeping very close attention, but the casinos frown upon the practice regardless.
In the film, which is a fictionalized version of a book that, in itself, took certain liberties with an actual story, the MIT blackjack team spends its weekends on clandestine trips to Vegas, where, using hand signals, fake IDs and codewords, it proceeds to take the casinos for hundreds of thousands of dollars, before returning, tired and strung out, to class on Monday. Naturally, this can only go on so long before the money gets the better of things, causing the team to rupture, but not before attracting the attention of a wily security specialist in the person of Lawrence Fishburne. Not only is he on the trail of our team of math whizzes, but he desperately wants his white whale, one of the greatest counters of all time and the leader/professor, played with great enthusiasm by Kevin Spacey. As it always does in a movie like this, it all comes down to one last score for all the chips and with this much money on the line, there's no one you can trust.
As I said, I typically enjoy gambling movies, and "21" was no exception, although I'll readily admit that my affinity for the genre makes it easier for me to overlook some obvious flaws. For one, the team, brilliant as they are, seem pretty obvious with their myriad signals and codes. I'm sure the actual people involved in the real story were subtler, considering they actually carried on their little game for quite a few years. Also, the characters are a little annoying slick, young hotties, each with their particular quirks. They seemed more like refugees from "The Real World" than MIT math geniuses. Kevin Spacey, who seems to recognize that he is the biggest name in the film, chews the scenery with aplomb, slick and oily at times, bombastic at others. Fishburne alone plays the role with any subtlety, but he's got a relatively small part, so it doesn't help much. And, there is a lot of effort spent to making us feel sorry for the central character, a person who, ultimately doesn't inspire that much sympathy.
In the end, though, it's all about the score, and the movie does a good job of combining the mathematical genius angle of "Good Will Hunting" with the casino antics of "Oceans 11," though without all the laughs. If you like these kinds of movies, don't be afraid to give it a chance. "21" doesn't exactly hit the jackpot, but at least you'll leave feeling like you broke even.
"21" is rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, partial nudity, and some violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.
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