In late 2002, I read Ben Mezrich’s terrific book, “Bringing Down The House,” about the MIT blackjack teams that went to Vegas with a team card-counting system and made millions. I was so fascinated by the story that I read it in a day, and then spent an hour talking about it with Mezrich on my show. I’ve dug that interview out of my archives and posted it here.
During our discussion, he mentioned that Kevin Spacey had bought the rights to the book and planned to make it into a movie. Unfortunately, the Hollywood engine grinds slowly, so it took five years to get it made, but the movie finally opened this weekend with the title “21” (because in the interim, a Steve Martin/Queen Latifah movie had already come out with the title “Bringing Down The House”).
After several introductory scenes that set the characters and place, you see the newest member of the team being recruited, taught the skills and the system, and then he and his teammates go to Vegas and make a lot of money very quickly, all the while enjoying their high-roller life to the fullest. It’s a helluva ride, as the lead character gets torn between his mundane weekday life as an MIT student trying to win a scholarship to Harvard Medical School and his weekend life as a party-boy big-bet blackjack player.
Spacey gives his usual solid performance as the professor who runs and puts the team of students together (in real life, no professor was involved, but Spacey couldn’t pass for a college kid these days). The rest of the cast, including Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth and their co-stars as the blackjack-playing MIT students, and Lawrence Fishburne as a casino surveillance thug, are all just about right — and it’s nice to see Jack McGee again, after his character was killed off last summer on “Rescue Me.”
Remember how the movie version of “Pearl Harbor” made the Japanese attack on the US revolve around a love triangle (Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett), and the success of “Titanic” was less about the disaster at sea than Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet playing King Of The World? That’s what was credited with bringing a PG-13 audience into the theater over and over again.
Director Robert Luketic and the writers of “21” have followed the same strategy and inserted a love affair between Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth. Fortunately, they don’t overdo it, and the relationship doesn’t become the fulcrum of the story.
But it becomes quickly obvious that while Luketic and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allen Loeb stick to the spirit of Mezrich’s story, they forsake some of the details in their zeal to appeal to those PG-13’s:
- The actual MIT students recruited for the blackjack team were Asians and Mediterranean minorities — because the organizers knew that Vegas pit bosses were less likely to be suspicious of them throwing around huge sums of money at the tables — yet Luketic has Caucasians playing the (romantic) leads on the team;
- The characters go to what must be the only Vegas strip clubs where the dancers never show their naked breasts (!);
- Although the true story took place less than 20 years ago, Luketic chose to modernize the story to present-day, which allowed him to shoot in Vegas locales like the Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood casinos that didn’t even exist when the MIT kids first hit town.
Perhaps I’m being too picky because I liked the book so much and was entranced by the true story that Mezrich told. If you didn’t read it, you’ll probably enjoy the movie, which already had a solid opening weekend, with a box office take of nearly $24 million.
I hope you’ll get a chance to read the Mezrich book, which has just been re-released as a tie-in with the movie. Or, if you want to see a better version which hews more closely to the story Mezrich told, get the DVDs of “Breaking Vegas,” a 2004 documentary that ran on the History Channel, including interviews with Mezrich and actual members of the MIT blackjack team.
Listen to my December 9, 2002 interview with Ben Mezrich about his book, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!