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The 21 blackjack movie from Columbia Pictures was released in 2008 and was based on the best-selling novel Bringing Down the House. Both the book and the film tell the story of the MIT Blackjack Team, a group of students and graduates from MIT and Harvard who used blackjack card-counting techniques to win tremendous amounts of money from casinos around the globe.
While the film deviates from the source material in places (and the original is far from reliable), it still remains a fascinating look at the world of gambling. It also doesn’t hurt that the film boasts a generous $35 million budget, authentic Vegas locations, and a star-studded cast of actors. If you have the slightest interest in blackjack or gambling in general, it’s worth the price of a rental. You may roll your eyes a few times when the Hollywood storyline kicks into overdrive, but it’s not as though a movie about card-counting comes out every week.
The 21 blackjack movie was inspired by Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Published in 2003 and presented as a work of non-fiction, it details the adventures of Kevin Lewis, an MIT graduate who joined the legendary MIT Blackjack Team in 1993. Recruited by Andre Martinez and Jason Fisher, and bankrolled by Micky Rosa, Lewis and his fellow players walked away from the casinos with millions thanks to their team-based approach to card-counting. Unfortunately, their team eventually broke up due to conflicts within the group and the continual efforts of the casinos to keep them from playing.
The character of Kevin Lewis was based on Jeff Ma, an MIT graduate who attained a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1994. Jason Fisher was based on 2004 World Series of Blackjack champion Mike Aponte, while Micky Rosa was a character mixing the personality traits of John Chang, JP Massar, and Bill Kaplan.
The novel was a New York Times bestseller, and it generated enough interest that the film rights were sold. It was not without controversy, however, as many of the details provided by Mezrich have proved to be fictional. If you decide to read the book, keep in mind that the theft of $75,000, acts of physical violence, and the use of strippers to cash out chips were all fictional elements added to make the story more compelling. There are numerous other examples, as well, but we don’t want to spoil all the details for you.
Instead of Kevin Lewis, this time the lead character is known as Ben Campbell. A brilliant math major at MIT, Ben is trying to win a scholarship that will pay his way through Harvard Medical School. After one of his professors, Micky Rosa, offers Ben a spot on the MIT Blackjack Team, he accepts in order to earn enough money to pay for medical school.
The group heads to Vegas and wins big, and Ben begins a romance with teammate Jill. But there are problems on the horizon, as Ben must deal with jealously and treachery from teammates, his growing alienation with his old college buddies, and the attention of a tough casino security chief.
The following are the notable members of the cast, along with a brief description of the roles they play.
Jim Sturgess – Ben Campbell is the film’s protagonist, an intelligent college student who hopes to attend medical school. His eventual success at the casinos goes to his head, and he must deal with a number of problems as a result.
Kevin Spacey – Micky Rosa is the leader of the blackjack team and a professor at MIT. As the film progresses, he develops an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Ben.
Laurence Fishburne – Plays Cole Williams, a casino security chief who wants to run Rosa and his blackjack team out of Las Vegas. He’s not above intimidating card counters and beating them up.
Kate Bosworth – Plays Jill, a member of the team and the eventual love interest of Ben.
Liza Lapira – Plays Kianna, a member of the team who also enjoys playing pokies.
Aaron Yoo – Plays Choi, a kleptomaniac and member of the team. While numerous members of the real-life team were Asian males, Yoo is the only one depicted in the film.
Jacob Pitts – Plays the role of Fisher, a member of the MIT Blackjack Team who becomes jealous of the relationship between Ben and Jill.
Jeff Ma – The inspiration for the lead character in the book and movie, Ma shows up in a cameo as a blackjack dealer at Planet Hollywood.
21 was a major hit at the global box office, raking in a total of over $157 million U.S. dollars against a cost of $35 million. The critics were not impressed, pointing out that the film would have been more interesting if the finer points of card-counting had been adhered to instead of focusing on ridiculous Hollywood action and romance.
There was also a certain amount of controversy surrounding the decision to cast British-born Jim Sturgess in the lead role, when Jeff Ma is Chinese-American. In fact, many of the players on the MIT Blackjack Team were Asian, a fact that is often overlooked in the film. Ma responded to attacks against him by stating that he had no control over the film once he sold the rights to his story, and that he would have been more upset had a Japanese or Korean actor been cast simply to have an Asian in the lead role.
See also: Facts about Pokies
If you like films about gambling, the 21 blackjack movie is worth a look. Sure, the facts may be distorted and the Hollywood style of filmmaking may be in full effect, but it still remains an entertaining flick full of casinos, blackjack, and good-looking performers. If you’d rather see the real thing—which can be tedious when compared to the Hollywood version—you can always go to a real-life casino and try your hand at counting cards; just don’t expect to be as successful as the MIT Blackjack Team.
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