dir: Robert Luketic
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Love films about gambling. Can’t get enough of Vegas films about high stakes gambling. Having an addictive personality myself, and having the tenuous self-control to be able to completely stay away from any forms of gambling simply because I know how all consuming they would be for me, I get to live vicariously through these kinds of flicks.

But 21 isn’t like Rounders, Lucky Me, The Hustler, Let it Ride, Owning Mahoney or the recent biopic High Roller about Stu “The Kid” Unger. It’s not about a person or people good at gambling risking everything to win a hefty pot o’ gold at the end of a compulsive / obsessive rainbow. 21, based on a book about these MIT math nerds who made good, is about some students who figured out a way to beat the house at its own game with both counting cards and a system to exploit it.

The risk, or the danger, here, is not losing everything through the vagaries of chance or being outplayed or through losing the battle with one’s own demons. It’s being crushed by the people Vegas casinos hire to ensure card counters, who aren’t doing anything illegal, don’t beat the house at its own game.

Even as someone who understands the allure of gambling, and can easily be seduced by it, I understand that, as they say in Australian parlance, it’s a mug’s game. It’s a mug’s game because the house, as everyone already knows, always wins. Always. How people can pour money into those blessed pokie machines is a complete mystery to me. I can’t figure out how people can ignore the fact that these machines are programmed, PROGRAMMED to return the seemingly random results that they return. They’re MACHINES, for crying out loud. They’re programmed to do what their owners desire, which is return almost none of your money except for the thin sliver that keeps your delusion alive that you’re going to get ahead at some point.

The other card games, roulette, everything else they've got has the odds so clearly weighted in the house's favour that even approaching these places becomes an act of faith more hopeful than leaping from a cliff and expecting the hand of God to reach out and save you.

I’m not that smart. Honestly. The mathematical simplicity of figuring how much change I’m owed from twenty dollars when buying two pints at the pub is routinely beyond me. But even I understand the simple premise that a business based on getting people to voluntarily fork over their money to you for no tangible benefit means that you’re going to provide games of chance they cannot win, short or long term.

But of course gambling is a trillion dollar industry. And within that obliviousness of reality and overflowing with greed, there are those who dare to beat the system at its own game, legally.

Legally, but much to the consternation of Las Vegas casino managers, not without consequence. When a bunch of MIT students in the 80s figured out a system to increase their chances of winning at the blackjack tables, they broke the bank but found themselves banned from every casino that had the good sense to exclude them.

Of course, the Asian-Americans who constituted the main players in that group are transformed by the magic of Hollywood into a group of generic Anglos with a few Asian hangers on.

Our main character Ben (Jim Sturgess, most recently seen in that there tiresome Beatles flick Across the Universe), adopts an American accent and a geeky demeanour in order to play a highly gifted but poor MIT student who needs $300,000 in order to pay for Harvard Medical, to which he has been accepted. Apparently, he hasn’t heard of student loans, but then again, maybe I haven’t either.

Ben is a nice enough chap, but by his own admission has lead a sheltered life due to a pathological focus on studying and on working so hard at perfecting the look of absolute gormlessness that he wears for the entire film’s duration. A charismatic professor susses out Ben’s high level mathematical ability by posing the Monty Hall question to him (a well known probability question with a counterintuitive answer, involving, I’m not kidding, three doors, a car and two goats). The professor and one of the allegedly ‘hot’ students, being Jill (the blank Kate Bosworth), overcome Ben’s reluctance and draw him in to their scheme for the making of wealth and, since it involves Kevin Spacey, probably world domination at some point.

Their initial success, of course, goes to their heads, and also makes them complacent about their long term chances of survival in a town renowned for its gentle treatment of people who beat the casinos at their own game. No, wait, Las Vegas was founded by people who turned kneecapping, leg-breaking and thumb-cracking into an art form. What were they called… oh yeah, the Mafia.

Their actual system requires a sequence of hand signals, codewords and a running count based on integer values, with the intention of waiting for the appropriate time to bet big based on the higher probability of success. I’m not sure that the film actually makes it clear that this is how they do it, because they probably just thought montages of smiling and the movement of chips interspersed with shots of Kate Bosworth looking winsome and vacant would take care of that necessity.

But that is how they do it, and it requires a high level of ability, attention, and judgement to succeed.

Of course things are going to turn to shit. There’s no drama if things don’t turn to shit. And any film needs dramatic doings to transpire to keep audience interest levels up. Which brings me to the flick’s primary problem.

Watching a game of blackjack just isn’t that interesting, regardless of what’s at stake. And there really never is anything at stake here. Because these guys, or this guy isn’t gambling. They’re using a method to profit from a system designed to put the player at a disadvantage, and whilst that’s interesting in an “I wonder how they did it?” kind of way, it’s flat in a dramatic sense.

When Ben plays and fails at some point, this leads to a falling out with the professor who enlisted him, and a beating and a stern talking to by Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), whose business card refers to Loss Reduction, but really, he’s just a hired goon trying to ensure people don’t actually win by anything but chance at the tables. This sets up the “one last big haul” ending, which is as tension-free as the primary relationship between Ben and Jill is free of chemistry.

I’ve seen Bosworth in other stuff, like Superman Returns and Wonderland, and I thought she was okay. Here she has the perpetual look of a stoned starlet lying back, taking it whilst being filmed in the green glow of a camera with night vision facility, and thinking not of England but of Hollywood. She, like her virtually non-existent character, is doing it solely for the money.

The most interesting question for me is one that never even gets hinted at, let alone answered. I wanted to understand why the actual story of some Asian American geeks getting together and making a killing at the tables before being banned from Vegas for life needed to be changed to Some Anglo Guy (with hangers on) using this rich setup to get revenge on a nasty lecturer, whilst helping a thug with his pension plan. Also, considering the fact that the Asian-American girl in the crew, Kianna (Liza Lapira) was gorgeous, available, funny and not a vacant space unlike Jill, you wonder whether the fictional aspects of the story had to adhere to some notion of racial purity as well, because, what, Anglos and Asians don’t mix on the silver screen?

Because, honestly. I mean really. Any alleged genius would totally have tapped that. Where was I? Oh yeah. Something about racial whitewashing…

It’s not a dead-loss, but it’s hardly a winner. And certainly not a winner winner, chicken dinner. Despite the story’s overall ordinariness, at least the acting aspires towards a level of adequacy all around. Spacey is Spacey, who plays the same character every time. Charming and genial for the first part, and then vicious and abusive in the second part. What a stretch, Kevin. Thanks for contributing, really, I mean that. You bring so much to the table.

It’s not the worst of the recent Vegas - gambling movies (that would be one called Deal, boy howdy), but it’s little better than merely adequate with an okay soundtrack that thankfully avoids playing Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett every chance it gets.

And I still bet that the vast majority of people who watch this film, like me, still have no idea how they actually did it.

6 times they never justify why Ben indulges in that terrible Al Pacino impression in the mirror when he makes it big out of 10

“You think you can beat the system? This is the system....beating you back” - 21