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Card-counting movie '21' endures the invasion of Hollywood

24 March 2008

The motion picture "21" makes no apologies.

The Columbia Pictures production doesn't hide from the fact that quite a bit of "Hollywood" was added to the script of the movie, which, as it clearly states on the movie's label, is "inspired by" the best-selling book, "Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions."

The key words being "inspired by" and not "based on."

Dana Brunetti, one of three producers of the film along with Kevin Spacey and Michael De Luca, explained the adaptation from real life to best-selling book to a major motion picture best when he said, "This is a fun movie – it's not meant to be a docudrama. We made some changes to the real story in order to make it work as an entertaining movie. We set the movie in the present time and added a romantic element. But we never touched the heart of what made the story so exciting."

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And what makes the plot so exciting is explained simply by reading the book's title. Ben Mezrich's intimate piece of work spent 57 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, selling more than one million copies while being translated into 19 languages.

The protagonist in real life is Jeff Ma, whose name in the book is "Kevin Lewis" and then "Ben Campbell" in the movie. Ma, whose friendship with Mezrich and the ensuing book deal was profiled in this story, is also quite comfortable with the changes made to his life story as it has gone from print to the big screen.

"Any time you take a seven-year span of my life and condense it into 300 pages and then you take those 300 pages and condense it into two hours, you're going to have to change a fair amount," says Ma, who has developed a series of blackjack videos that teach the basics of counting cards and has a cameo role in the film as a blackjack dealer during a pivotal casino scene. "But there are some scenes in the movie that are so eerily reminiscent of what we did and what we went through, it gave me goose bumps. They did a fantastic job of capturing the different moments at the tables and the amount of tension we were feeling. It's pretty amazing."

The basic gist of the movie follows the theme of Mezrich's book while rendering spectacular cinematography shots of Boston and Las Vegas with authentic casino scenes that will get the gambling blood flowing of even the most-prudent members of the audience.

Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess) is an MIT math whiz who gets invited to play with a blackjack team, which is comprised of fellow students and led by a professor (Kevin Spacey's character Mickey Rosa). The team uses an elaborate card-counting scheme to bust Las Vegas on weekends and live the lives of regular Strip big shots. Eventually, a strife hits within the team while at the same time the casinos, led by a convincing performance from Lawrence Fishburne, who plays the role of security enforcer Cole Williams, also begin to catch on to the ploy.

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But this is where the book and the movie go in different directions, leading to a somewhat unrealistic, but intriguing string of events that help wrap up the plot into a classic blissful ending.

Sturgess, who was previously seen in "Across the Universe" and admitted that before filming "21" he had never played blackjack, delivers what could be a breakout performance. The Britain-made actor provides a believable Boston accent and sells his character as both the nerdy MIT student and Vegas high roller he becomes in his surreal life.

"Jim is a find," says producer De Luca of Sturgess, who spent months hanging out with Ma before the filming of the movie. "I think he's going to be a major, major star. He brings innocence, vulnerability, and a brooding intensity that he can turn on when he needs to."

In fact, the entire film is well-cast with Ben's nerdy friends – Josh Gad as Miles and Sam Golzari as Cam – providing amusing relief each time they appear, as does Aaron Yoo's character Choi, one of the members on the blackjack team.

Meanwhile, the Jill Taylor character, which also plays on the blackjack team and helps lure Ben into joining forces with the group, is a perfect role for the fetching Kate Bosworth, although her character's love interest with Ben is erratic and the ensuing fling seems forced. But, of course, what's a Hollywood script without a love story.

Then there's the estimable Kevin Spacey, whose Mickey Rosa character commands the focus of the audience in every scene he's in, although much of his sordid actions and dubious past are never fully explained. The reason could be that Spacey's character isn't based on one person, but a blending portrayal of multiple personalities, both real and fictional.

"The character is an amalgamation," Spacey says. "The character is a combination, a compilation of several real people and imagination – partly my imagination, I hope, since I play him."

There was one small controversy that has arisen regarding the casting. Although Ma and the rest of his blackjack team were primarily of Asian descent, the main characters in the movie – except for Yoo and Liza Lapira's character Kianna – are Caucasian. But Ma defused any kind of contention about the issue.

"The most important thing for me was that the person who played me did a good job of portraying me and what it was like to through all of the things that we did during that time," said Ma, who strolled the red carpet at the Boston premiere of the movie accompanied by his parents. "It doesn't matter to me if that person was white, black or Asian. And I think Jim did an unbelievable job of capturing what that time in my life was all about. That's what matters most."

Odds are that "21" with have success at the box office because it will pull from a few different breeds of moviegoers. The plot is intricate enough to entice the hard-core gamblers, especially since the casino scenes are both realistic and captivating. But the actions of the team aren't too complex for non-blackjack players, who have the card-counting scheme broken down for them in simple enough terms that they get a sense as to exactly how the team won its millions.

"'21' spans many genres," adds Brunetti. "It's a suspense film with action, comedic and romantic elements, and it's inspired by true events. Even with all of those balls in the air, [Director] Robert [Luketic] was able to balance it into one unified vision."

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Best of Gary Trask
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT