Revisiting the film 21

Over the years there have been many great movies that focus on card games. And while films like The Sting and The Cincinnati Kid may have become Hollywood all-time greats, there haven’t been too many recent films that have taken card games very seriously.

Too often, we’ve suffered through the likes of Casino Royale, which saw James Bond playing a suitably hammy game of high-stakes poker, or worse, Mark Wahlberg overacting as a professor in the grips of addiction in the pointless remake of The Gambler.

But one notable exception is 2008’s movie 21. This great drama has really grown in stature in recent years and has certainly become more relevant thanks to the enormous popularity of online blackjack and the endless visibility of its producer Kevin Spacey.


Spacey not only produced the movie, but also played the role of the MIT college professor who guides a highly-intelligent group of students to perfect their card counting abilities. And while taking on the gaming tables of Las Vegas to pay off student tuition fees might seem far-fetched, it’s important to remember that this movie is based on a real-life story that definitely adds an extra level of urgency to the on-screen action.

Obviously, there are a few times where the movie takes a few liberties with the story for dramatic effect. For example, the actors frequently use mobile phones in a way that definitely wouldn’t have been the case in the 1990s when the real story occurred. However, with gaming sites like Lucky Nugget Casino allowing players to double down in online blackjack games from their smartphones, it’s probably a good decision that Spacey took to try and make the movie more relevant to modern audiences.


It’s also worth noting that the film, rightfully so, came under fire for replacing the predominantly-Asian real-life team with a mostly white cast in the film. While this kind of whitewashing is regrettable and should be discussed, as it continues to be an issue in Hollywood, it’s interesting to note that the real-life team members seemed unphased by the casting. MIT blackjack team member Jeff Ma said, “For me it wasn’t a big deal, because for about three years people had been asking me who I wanted to play me in a movie and I never was saying like ‘John Cho’ or ‘Chow Yun-Fat’ or ‘Jackie Chan …’”

The young cast, which includes stars like Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth, do a great job of portraying a group of students who find themselves under increasing pressure from the Las Vegas underworld. Although the director Robert Luketic has delivered a few cinematic turkeys such Killers and Paranoia, he’s on great form here in adding some serious suspense to the gambling drama.

What’s interesting is how the movie has grown in popularity in less than a decade. And with the real-life characters from 21 starting to make massive fortunes through video start-ups, it shows that it’s not just games of blackjack that can change people’s lives.

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