Directed by: Robert Luketic
Written by:Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Laurence Fishburne, Jacob Pitts
Released: May 15, 2008
Grade: B+

I remember watching a TV documentary a few years ago about a group of college students who were able to “cheat” at blackjack and won a lot of money.  Put simply, they counted cards.  By remembering what cards had already been dealt, they knew which cards were still in the deck.  This helped them calculate odds which thereby improved their chances.

As someone obsessed with numbers (my day job is as an accountant), I found this story riveting.  These youngsters won millions of dollars by using simple mathematics.  If you are interested in the exact details, you can read the book written by Ben Mezrich on which the film is based.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t see the movie.  I think it’s great and I recommend it.  It’s just that it doesn’t go into a lot of detail regarding how they counted the cards and how they knew when to bet.  This is the Hollywood version where all the actors are good looking and a few elements of the story are embellished (to a large degree).

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is a promising student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  He’s trying to land a scholarship which will get him into the Harvard School of Medicine.  It’s his only hope since he has no way of earning the $300,000 required to pay for the full course.

At a maths lecture, Professor Micky Rosa (Spacey) realises that Ben has a gift for numbers.  He invites him into a little “club” that he has formed.  Each week, Professor Rosa and a few selected students fly to Las Vegas and put their card counting system to work.  It’s won them all a lot of money.  Ben is reluctant to accept Professor Rosa’s invitation as he thinks what they do is dishonest.  He soon comes around however.  The lure of dollars is too tempting.

In Vegas, Ben quickly finds his feet.  He’s a natural.  In his first weekend, he comes away with around $17,000.  The team of 5 students use aliases and facial disguises so they don’t get caught.  Whilst card counting is not illegal, you don’t really want to get caught doing it.  Security men at casinos have been known to take the law into their own hands.

Ah, but what goes up must come down.  Video security expert Cole Williams (Fishburne) has tweaked that something isn’t right at a few of his casinos.  He sees that Ben has a knack for winning but can’t figure out how he’s doing it.  There’s trouble brewing within the team as well.  Factions are forming and egos are building.  Will they keep their cool and the secrets that they’ve been hiding?

21 is an entertaining film to watch.  Australian director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) has made the material fun and sexy.  It’s easy to follow and there are plenty of great individual moments (such as when Ben and Professor Rosa first exchange ideas in a lecture theatre.  There are also a few nice twists to the story in the later stages.  It has all the ingredients necessary to make it an easy-going crowd pleaser.

Newcomer Jim Sturgess does a great job playing Ben.  He’s a very apprehensive and reserved person in the opening scenes but you see him come out of his shell when harnesses his skills in Las Vegas.  Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne are also top-notch in their respective roles.  They help boost the film’s overall quality.

If you’re not sure if this film is for you, I suggest you throw your chips down and take a punt.  What have you got to lose?