Casino movies are ripe ground for some of the best mindjob media around. From the classic of Ocean’s 11, the more modern Ocean’s 8 remake, casinos and casino games are all about chips, tricks, and quick wits. One of the most underrated in this genre (yes, I’m calling it a genre), is the film 21.
Inspired by a true story, this heist drama film follows a group of mathematically gifted students and their less-than-decent teacher. Dirtbag Professor Micky Rosa, aptly and prophetically played by real-life dirtbag Kevin Spacey, employs these students to game casinos by counting cards in blackjack.
Quick 21 Movie Overview
The movie is a classic. It starts with Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess), a math major at MIT who had just been accepted into Harvard Medical School – but alas, he can’t afford the 300k tuition. (Which, is a topic that is ripped straight out of the current news headlines.) After applying for a scholarship, he learns that only the student that ‘dazzles’ the director of the program wins the scholarship. Soon after Rosa invites Ben to join their blackjack team, which counts cards in order to signal when to hit and not, in order to increase their probability of winning. And after a number of successful trips, the head of security of the casino begins tracking Ben.
And after a downward spiral of chaos, including fights within the team, and having his $200,000 in earnings stolen from his dorm, he learns that he can’t graduate because his final class with Professor Rosa is being marked as incomplete. Heading back, one more time, it’s revealed that Ben and Williams made a deal to lure Rosa. And although he earns $640,000 to cover his losses, he has it stolen by Williams. And as the movie ends, we see that it’s Ben, bedazzling the scholarship board to the Harvard Medical School.
The Game of Blackjack and its Intrigue
If you are unfamiliar with Blackjack – it’s a fairly simple game. (But really, where have you been?) I’m not going to go in-depth, but there are plenty of tables online which can help teach you, with the game of 21 being among the most popular when it comes to online live casino gaming. Basically, you win by having more points than the dealer without going over 21, which results in a bust. You get to choose your moves, and the dealer does not, which makes the game more related to skill than some other games of chance.
Anyway, to the particular 21 trickery. You might be thinking I’m talking about the idea of how they go about getting away with their crimes, but the real clever bit for me, is trying to determine (hypothetically) how we would pull off a real heist. Obviously, you and I won’t be pulling any heists, anytime soon. But the thought is always at the back of my mind when watching these sorts of films, and I’m sure it’s the same with you. The question is the same, the moral question. The philosophy of taking what you can, because you can. Right? Which leads us back to the larger moral question. If we believe in a higher moral law, why? Because God? Or because it’s mean? Obviously we shouldn’t steal, but why? What is the foundation at the base of that assumption?
I still remember the one and only time I sat at a table in the bowels of a Vegas casino. After walking away 20 minutes later with 3 times what I walked in with, I said, “Yes, now I know why this holds such a fascination for so many.” And the fact that money seems to shuttle through the airwaves in this weird psychic frisson, doesn’t make stealing any less morally repugnant. But the larger question for you is, why? What philosophical framework buttresses and supports this idea? For me, I believe in God, and the framework that informs the rest of the universe… the order that He has created. For you? Is it ‘decency’? Or maybe it’s a more grassroots idea of ‘do unto others’? Minus the Biblical framework? I’d love to hear why.
The Movie 21 Conclusion
Much of this strength of this movie is drawn directly from the strength of the actor’s performances. It can be difficult to effectively create characters in a film who are both geniuses and relatable. Too robotic and we cannot relate, too casual and we see the actor rather than the character. Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, and Aaron Yoo manage to marry these two halves, giving believability to what could otherwise find itself as over-dramatized shlock.
Therein lies a key difference between 21 and the likes of casino films such as the Ocean’s series. While the latter focuses on larger-than-life characters, the former needs us to have a more direct understanding and compassion for the film’s protagonists. The danger the characters face in this film is much more believable, and relaying this aspect requires a very different tack.
21 raises the question to me, and I have to wonder what I might do, or what I could do, if I was backed into a corner. I could never rob an actual casino, I’m 100% sure of that, but what if we are talking about helping our families and defrauding criminals? Would it be worth the risk? What happens when they don’t accept the outcome, and how far would I have to run?
If you think this is a simple question to answer then I have a task for you. Watch this film with some friends and raise these questions. I can guarantee that for each different person you’ll get a different answer. To me, that’s what makes 21 such a great mindjob of a movie. It doesn’t just make me think about the plot, it makes me think about myself, and that’s the mark of a film doing something special.
Edited by: CY