Films about gambling and Las Vegas in particular have always held a certain fascination with the public, culminating with perhaps the ultimate Vegas movie OCEAN'S ELEVEN. But this week we have a release of a film that takes the Vegas movie a whole new direction. Most stunning of all is that it is in part based on a true story.
TWENTY ONE is the story of Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a struggling student at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who has hopes of attending Harvard Med School. A grade A student with a 4.0 average, Ben is interviewed for a full ride scholarship. All he has to do is present an essay describing a life experience that sets him out above the other several hundred students applying. The problem is he has nearly no life experience.
That all changes when he starts a class taught by Prof. Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). During the class, Rosa notices Ben's aptitude with numbers and mathematical equations. In turn, he invites him to join a select group of students Rosa has put together. The reason? Using the technique of counting cards, they plan to make a mint in Vegas at the blackjack tables.
At first hesitant to do so, Ben finally comes around and joins the group which consists of Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira) and Fisher (Jacob Pitts). The group learns to not only count cards, they put together a set of signals to let the lead player know which tables are hot and when to move on. When they have it down, they become Vegas bound.
It runs like clockwork. The tables return them all a tidy profit and back to school they go, only to return weekend after weekend. Along the way a romance develops between Ben and Jill, Choi continues to pilfer tiny items everywhere he goes and Fisher places the entire project in jeopardy with a drunken night at the tables. The result is Fisher gets booted and Ben becomes the big cheese.
With money coming in like never before, the rush of taking on the tables in Vegas and finding love at last, Ben's life changes but not for the better. Grades become a thing of the past as do his friends. His focus becomes making more and more money until he takes a chance he can't come back from.
A bad night at the tables results in Micky cutting Ben lose and leaving the team in their hotel room alone. Making the decision to go it alone, Ben gets caught by Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), the head of security for the hotel casino. Not only does he get caught, Cole has a grudge against an old gambler he lost years ago...named Micky Rosa.
The twists and turns at the end of the film along with the build up from the start make this a compelling movie that holds your attention from the starting gate. Ben's life riding a roller coaster of lows, highs and a return to the lows makes for an interesting tale that turned out much better than I expected.
All performances seen in this flick are totally believable from the leads to the secondary characters. While Spacey may have been the "name above the title" in getting this movie made, he doesn't take center stage here, instead opting to work with the ensemble and that is to the benefit of the film.
Based on the true story of a group of MIT students who actually did take Vegas for a ton of money, though not nearly in the same way shown here for dramatic effect, the film is certain to get the hopes up of gamblers seeking a way to beat the bank. Don't get caught up in that notion as the house is always the favorite. Instead, get caught up in the tale of a group of students led by a charismatic teacher who take a gamble and end up getting more than they bargained for.