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Cherry Pop

'21 (Two-Disc Special Edition)'
(Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, et al / DVD / PG-13 / 2008 / Sony Pictures)

Overview: Inspired by the true story of MIT students who mastered the art of card counting and took Vegas casinos for millions in winnings. Looking for a way to pay for tuition, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) finds himself quietly recruited by MIT's most gifted students in a daring plot to break Vegas. With the help of a brilliant statistics professor (Kevin Spacey) and armed with fake IDs, intelligence and a complicated system of counting cards, Ben and his friends succeed in breaking the impenetrable casinos. Now, his challenge is keeping the numbers straight and staying one step ahead of the casinos before it all spirals out of control.

DVD Verdict: There are so many misfires in the plot of "21," you'd think the filmmakers would be too embarrassed to advertise it as being inspired by a true story. I didn't believe this movie for one second, and this is only partly because it tells such an implausible tale--anyone gifted with the ability to count cards would never involve themselves in a scheme this obvious, and they certainly wouldn't be stupid enough to repeatedly go to the same two or three casinos.

And yet five students and a teacher from MIT do exactly that every weekend in Las Vegas playing Blackjack, a game that can easily be won, mathematically speaking. I know little about Ben Mezrich's book "Bringing Down the House," and I know even less about Blackjack; all I can say is that, even if there was an MIT team that won millions by counting cards, I seriously doubt the characters in this film accurately represent the real-life members.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is an MIT student hoping to be accepted into Harvard Medical. But he has two problems: (1) tuition and boarding alone would cost around $300,000, an amount his managerial job at an upscale clothing store would not provide; (2) despite his excellent grades, a scholarship cannot be guaranteed. He soon meets math professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who immediately picks up on Ben's superior intelligence. Almost immediately, Ben is lured into joining a secret Blackjack club led by Mickey and teamed with four other math geniuses: Jill (Kate Bosworth), Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira), and Fisher (Jacob Pitts).

Because they're all able to count cards, they know they can beat any casino and walk away with bundles of money. Besides, it's not as if card counting is illegal. Ben reluctantly agrees to join the club, making it clear that he's only doing it to pay for his stay at Harvard.

After training him thoroughly, Ben, Mickey, and the team begin a weekend-only regiment of flying to Vegas with fake IDs and winning lots of money. Here's something I don't understand, and I mean this of both the film characters and the real life MIT Blackjack team: Why would students from Massachusetts travel all the way to Vegas when Atlantic City is much easier to get to? Never mind--let's just focus on the film. Once in the casino, the team uses a very precise system of hand signals and code words: coupling your hands behind your back means the table is hot; touching the corner of your eye means, "We need to talk"; running your fingers through your hair is a signal to get out as fast as you can.

Even words are used: "sweet" means that the cards are at plus sixteen; "eggs" means that they're at plus twelve; and so on and so forth. Every game scene actually makes the entire scheme look more obvious than clever. Even math geniuses would know to stir up the routine by employing different hand signals each and every time.

Incidentally, I've been calling these characters "math geniuses" only because the film tells us that that's what they are. Had we not been given this information, it would be hard to tell--the actors, while capable, never once made me believe they were any more academically well off than the average Joe. Not even Oscar winner Kevin Spacey could convince me, probably because I could focus on nothing other than how unlikable his character is; Mickey uses these students for his own financial gain, and this is for doing nothing besides "managing" the team.

Eventually, the thrill of winning goes to Ben's head, making him unable to stop even after reaching his $300,000 goal. But as Mickey explained early on, they're in it to count, not to gamble. Ben doesn't care. At a certain point, he doesn't feel he needs Mickey anymore (for reasons I won't reveal). The rest of the team cautiously goes along with Ben, knowing that card counting is a very high-stakes game.

And this brings me to Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), a menacing casino enforcer who will gladly beat card counters in dark rooms. Maybe he's cranky because he's just about out of a job; a new image detection system is quickly making him obsolete. Or maybe he doesn't understand the uncanny ability to watch the MIT team via surveillance when they supposedly stay in different hotels each time. I certainly didn't understand it; maybe I missed something along the way. Whatever the case, Williams is on to them soon enough, meaning that Ben has to find some other way to count cards if he wants the money he feels he deserves.

This is the kind of plot that sounds a lot better than it actually is. But "21" works in much the same way a casino does: it blindsides you with bright lights and loud noises, ultimately leaving you poorer than when you first entered. I didn't buy any of it, not the circumstances, not the developing relationship between Ben and Jill, not the relationship between Ben and his MIT friends Miles (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari), who are nothing more than nerdy stereotypes. I certainly didn't buy the ending, and while I can't describe it in detail, I can say that it's so implausible and silly it's a wonder no one forced the filmmakers to re-shoot it. True story or not, "21" is a film no one can buy into, and that's a shame because the idea behind it is actually very interesting. Card counting is a calculated system, yet the film miscalculates from start to finish. Go figure. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs, and comes with the Special Features of:

Filmmaker Commentary
Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal Making-of featurette
21 The Advantage Player: The cast explains the game of blackjack and card counting
Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life - Featurette that explores the clothes, luxuries and locations shown in the film
Digital Copy of the Film