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Blackjack Movie Review: 21

Blackjack Movie Review: 21 (2008)
by Daniel Johnson of Predictem.com

Director Robert Luketic's "21" is a fast paced ride into the glitzy, but dangerous world of high-stakes card counting in Las Vegas. More than that, it is a coming of age story of a young MIT student who needs money, but mostly life experience, that will gain him admittance to Harvard Medical School, his ultimate dream. We see in the film that dreams can come at a high price, but if you are smart enough, you always have a chance to beat the odds.

The story begins as we meet young Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess, who is applying to Harvard Medical School. He has everything to get into the program. Ben has perfect grades, test scores and plenty of recommendations, but the other thing he is missing is money. Ben needs $300,000 to pay for tuition or to win the prestigious Robinson Scholarship that will give him a free ride. The Robinson is awarded to only one student a year, so Ben is told he needs to stand out from the pack of other students. Ben needs something to dazzle the admissions board, some kind of true life experience.

After wowing his math professor Mickey Rosa, played by Kevin Spacey, Ben is recruited to join a secret blackjack club that promises to make him more money than he could ever imagine. Of course, Ben is torn at first. He has been on the straight and narrow his entire life. But driven by attraction to the piles of cash, the lights of Vegas, and his beautiful college crush Jill, played by Kate Bosworth, Ben joins the MIT blackjack team and quickly becomes it's star player.

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Ben then has the challenge of balancing a double life. When he is in Las Vegas he is a high-rolling casino killer, but back in Boston he is a geeky mathlete. He quickly starts to distance himself from his old friends and sees that the Vegas lifestyle can come at a great cost. One of those costs is more of a physical one as Ben and his team are constantly being monitored and chased by the "Eyes in the sky," the Las Vegas casino security consultant, played by an intimidating Laurence Fishburne. It is a story of winning and losing everything, but it is also a story of living life to the fullest while you can.

I really liked the style in which the film is shot and the fast track it keeps the audience on. It works on many Las Vegas clichés, but it does so in a way that makes the lifestyle an enviable and somewhat achievable one. Ben's character is new to the whole thing and this makes the audience relate to him. It's also really easy to root against the house as the main villain of the film. Ben's obviously a good kid who deserves to achieve what he wants so the audience can get behind him. "21" has the ability to make the audience want the ability to count cards, not only to make money, but just because it's so damn cool.

The way they explain card counting and how the team works is probably a much more simple version of how it is in real life, but it is easy enough to understand and yet complex enough to make it appear difficult. The film uses slow-motion sequences to show us all the mental processes that go on while the cards are dealt and then uses quick cuts and montages of rising chip stacks, celebrating winners, and flashing casino lights.

Wherever there is a lot of money, however, there is greed. Ben learns that he can't always control his emotions and that winning at cards still comes at a price. The film shows how Ben changes with his success in Vegas and how he has to go back to realizing what's important in life with his grounded life in Boston.

Though the message and the life lessons in the film are overplayed in Hollywood, especially gambling movies, I really fell for this one and bought into Ben's story. It also helps that this was based on a book, "Bringing Down the House," which was in turn based on the true story of six MIT students who took Vegas for millions. I'm sure this version of the story included more dramatic effect to make the material more relatable to a general audience, but I have to say it worked. Solid acting, good source material, stylistic cinematography and a satisfying little twist at the end made "21" a true winner. It certainly made me want to put my chips into the middle and shoot for my dreams.

Rating: 4 out of 5 chips

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