21 is based on a novel by Ben Mezrich called Bringing Down the House. But after Queen Latifah and company ruined that title with an exceptionally bad comedy, Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions went with a simple, blander name for this one. One of many things that have been watered down in its adaptation.
It’s a story about a group of MIT students who learned how to master the game of blackjack with a sophisticated card counting system, before taking their brilliance on the road and taking Vegas for millions.
The movie, however, is sort of about that. First and foremost, the all-Asian team of mathematical geniuses is now only 40% Asian, and the rest have been replaced with good-looking Caucasians, including the model-hot Kate Bosworth as an unrealistic MIT student and actual rocket scientist.
Also given the Hollywood treatment is the protagonist, who is now a pre-med Harvard hopeful without a father or the ability to pay for his higher education. As if someone decided from book to script that Ben would be more relatable if he was more of an average Joe mathematics whiz kid, working to pay his way through another Ivy League degree. Like so many of the ladies also working in Vegas, he’s “just doing it to pay for school.”
There was no reason to punch up the story, shuffling in robotic science competitions, a lukewarm love angle, and single mother pride. The true one has enough intellectual intrigue and Las Vegas debauchery to easily adapt into an entertaining movie. The movie works best in scenes where it doesn’t stray from the book (and thus the factual story), but it’s those fictional fabrications that not only stand out but add more time to an already dragging plotline.
It lags because there’s too much setup. I don’t mean the explanation of the card counting system (which goes under-appreciated), but the background story of Ben’s real life, which ironically is the part that isn’t true.
Ben (Jim Sturgess) is an MIT senior, finishing with a 4.0 as a formality on his way to medical school at Harvard. But he’s short on funds and the $8 an hour assistant manager position at the suit shop isn’t going to make much of a dent in the $300,000 price of admission. Lured by poverty and the chance of getting the hottest girl in class (Bosworth), Ben joins a team of card counters lead by one of his professors, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey). That’s all you need to know and something that might have been hurried along to spare the audience the hemming and hawing Ben does before joining the team. It takes almost an hour for the team to even set foot in Vegas.
The initiation is a little strange though. Well, a lot strange, to the point of being an eye-rolling, overblown enigma. “You’re going to come with me now” vagueness in an empty library to create a feeling of forced mystery, followed by merely clues of upcoming events said through sly smirks. Winks, nudges, and “you’ll see” statements and I’m still waiting for something to happen.
Once the lengthy setup is complete, the team finally heads to Vegas, where signals passed between the teammates let each other know when the table is hot. Then Ben comes over and plunks down big money and they cash in when the odds favor them over the house.
On the other side of the table is Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old school security boss whose back-room intimidation tactics are part of a dying breed in Vegas as they’re replaced with high-tech facial recognition software and legitimate corporate dealings. Fishburne doesn’t get much screen time, but when he’s on it you’re reminded of his commanding performance as Morpheus, and he adds more to the movie than even Spacey.
Shot with digital cameras, I noticed a crisp transition to the random special effects used for passages of time. But at other times it was too slick and ruined any authentic credibility, like so many of the flimsy disguises used by the characters to blend into the crowd. However, this movie is a step in the right direction for director Robert Luketic, who up until now has been toiling away in romantic comedy tedium.
He could have used a decent editing team to help out though. In one scene (pictured right), Mickey deals the cards face up to explain the system to a skeptical Ben. After a cutaway, the cards are face down and a few are missing. Another cutaway and now they’re spread differently and still down. In another scene Spacey is put on hold on a cell phone with the press of a button (mute?) and then handed to a character who takes it and starts immediately having a conversation with him. Simple mistakes, I guess, but examples of a sloppily thrown together adaptation of an interesting topic.