Monday, 20 May 2024

Math geniuses become exciting when counting to '21'

21 (Rated PG-13)

Counting cards while playing blackjack in Vegas casinos isn’t illegal, but it would be unwise to try to convince a pit boss on the finer points of the law. According to “21,” you could end up in the hotel basement, facing the business end of the fists of a casino enforcer, which in the case of this movie arrives courtesy of the very intimidating Laurence Fishburne. Since the mob has given way to corporate sharks, ejection from a casino is more often a case of being asked to leave and never return.

Loosely inspired by Ben Mezrich’s book “Bringing Down the House,” the story of math geniuses at MIT who beat Vegas at its own game, “21” is an obvious dramatization that seeks to punch up the caper with high stakes action, close calls with security staff and the glitzy seduction of the glamorous Vegas lifestyle.

Brilliant college students succeeded at raking in millions by card-counting, but they likely ran the operation as a well-oiled machine that stuck to a serious business model. As a movie is wont to do, “21” glamorizes Vegas as if it were on the payroll of the Chamber of Commerce.

The linchpin of the “21” caper is shy, brilliant MIT senior Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), who’s been accepted to Harvard Medical School but either needs to win a coveted scholarship or must cough up $300,000 for tuition.

On both counts, Ben’s prospects look bleak until he’s noticed by unorthodox math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who runs his classroom as if students were contestants on “Jeopardy.” Actually, the professor is on the lookout for talented pupils with an aptitude for numbers.

Moonlighting as the head of a card-counting ring, Professor Rosa recruits Ben to his inner circle of gifted students who take weekend trips from Boston to Vegas for fun and profit. Clandestine meetings take place at night in vacant classrooms, as Rosa instructs his charges on the intricacies of counting cards and employing strategies to evade detection by casino security.

Ben is quickly attracted to the cause by the presence of smart and sexy teammate Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth). It’s not surprising, then, that they later find more in common than just a deck of cards. What’s a caper without the romantic angle that threatens the whole setup?

Seduced by more than a pretty girl and a ton of money, Ben pushes the limits of his mathematical abilities. In the process, his exceptional skills rather quickly alienate the team’s blackjack prodigy, the mercurial and arrogant Fisher (Jacob Pitts), who proves exceedingly resentful at becoming second fiddle to the newcomer. The estrangement between the two card players kicks in the right note of tension to spice up the plot. Otherwise, we just have to marvel how Choi (Aaron Yoo) and Kianna (Liza Lapira) go about the task of playing spotters, flashing signals about a table being hot or whether it is time to flee in haste.

The signal-calling doesn’t come fast enough to save Ben from a particularly nasty encounter with Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old school security specialist with a knack for finding card counters just by simple observation and gut instinct. Before getting caught, Ben and his crew are very audacious, but since the kids are perhaps too smart for their own good, they get caught up in the idea of their perceived invincibility. “21” turns on a character study of how the mild-mannered Ben is swept up by the glitzy lifestyle. More than just being seduced by the heady rush of gambling, Ben also has a showdown with the professor over his authoritarian style.

In the end, “21” strains to find a reasonable climax to the mounting tension induced by turmoil within the ranks and the unraveling of the team’s anonymity. As if playing cat-and-mouse with the casinos is not exciting enough, the plot winds up with a series of double-crosses that seem forced and gratuitous. And yet, “21” is fun to watch because Kevin Spacey is chewing up the scenery as usual.


To be sure, there are plenty of newer film titles being released on DVD. I choose instead to point out the new Collector’s Editions on some old favorites, which are closely timed to the start of the baseball season.

“Bull Durham” is the comedy classic about sex and sport that follows a minor-league baseball fan (Susan Sarandon) and the love triangle she creates in the clubhouse between an up-and-coming pitcher (Tim Robbins) and the mentor catcher (Kevin Costner) assigned to him. The Collector’s Edition contains five all-new behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The true story of the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919 where the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series is sharply realized in the underrated “Eight Men Out.”

Lastly, acting legend Gary Cooper stars as the legendary Lou Gehrig in “Pride of the Yankees,” featuring seven brand new featurettes.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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