21. Columbia Pictures 2008.

Before watching the movie:

This is a movie I have clear memories of being advertised in a poster case in my high school cafeteria, which wouldn’t be possible since it was released almost a full year after I graduated. It does occupy close quarters in my brain with The Perfect Score (a 2004 heist movie about students stealing SAT answers) and Easy A (a reimagining of The Scarlet Letter set in a modern high school that didn’t even come out until 2010, why is it even in this trio?), but I don’t recall Perfect Score being in that case. Memory is incredibly fluid sometimes.

Right. This is the one with MIT students counting cards in Las Vegas. It seems like it’s being positioned as a heist movie, so it will be interesting to see how the film makes counting cards visually and emotionally engaging.

After watching the movie:

Ben Campbell worked hard his entire young life with the goal of getting into Harvard Medical School, and is already at MIT. Having almost maxed out his MCAT, the only thing standing in his way from getting to Harvard is the $300k tuition he’s never going to be able to afford working at a suit store. He applies for the full ride Robinson Scholarship but is told by the professor that he essentially has no chance of beating the stiff competition, especially without a dazzling essay. Ben realizes that he hasn’t done any living with his life and has to pin all his hopes on the robotics competition he’s working on with his best friends. However, after a show of his intellect in class gets the attention of his professor, Mickey Rosa, Ben is invited to join the Blackjack Team, a group of students organized by Mickey who go to Las Vegas on weekends to engage in organized card counting for extreme profit. Ben reluctantly agrees to join, but warns that he will quit as soon as his take is enough to pay for Harvard. Quickly he finds that he’s good at this job and the lifestyle is good to him, and with Mickey’s influence smoothing out the academic side, Ben finds very little need to continue putting effort into anything back in Boston, least of all his old friends and their robot. Card counting is not illegal, but it is heavily frowned upon by the casinos, who will, if annoyed enough, explain to counters that they are no longer welcome by use of their fists. As casino after casino switches to biometric tracking to identify unwelcome guests, fewer are safe for card counters, and fewer need the continued services of security consultant Cole Williams, who takes getting fooled by counters very, very personally.

There are some very nicely designed visual moments mostly around making the excitement of hours of playing cards read in a few seconds, but most of the movie is about building up Ben’s personal arc, getting intoxicated with the thrill of what they’re doing, losing it all, and rebuilding for the climax. You wouldn’t think that playing cards in a casino could be a heist, and I guess, the playing is a small part of the heist itself, but the heist is so well played that it’s not even clear that a heist is happening until everything goes to hell, as per the actual plan. It is kind of interesting that a heist style coup can play against, instead of dazzlingly high tech security systems, a guy with some cameras, an inside out understanding of the methods he’s paid to root out, and a willingness to get his knuckles bloody.

While this is based on a real group from MIT, it seems that pretty much none of the story is much related to what they did beyond the card counting scheme. The result is a thrill in the moment, but a pretty generic thrill in retrospect. It might have been interesting to see the formation of the original scheme, but being framed as Ben’s journey, he comes into a team that’s The One We Made Earlier, and he ultimately destabilizes it. The team therefore gets flattened to The Kingpin, The Love Interest, The Rival/Falling Star, and The Other Two.

I was surprised by the presence of early Josh Gad, but he’s barely in the movie as he’s one of the best friends that get ignored. I thought the rival guy was Kevin Bacon playing very below his age, but like just about everybody else, he was somebody I don’t think I’d heard of before. Though I think it works better this way, because seeing actors I recognize took me a little out of the story. So it’s better that it was just Josh Gad, Lawrence Fishburne, and that other guy everyone is done hearing about.

Gambling is something to participate in as responsibly as any other legal chemical enhancement. Card counting is playing the game so well I hesitate to call it gambling, though I also think a casino should congratulate a card counter and ask them nicely to check out the other hotels in town, though I can see wanting to shut down a frequent counter. I do think that an organized team system like they worked out crosses a line where it’s not as much equalizing the playing field as much as raiding the bank.

If you like a ride with a side of theme park math, this is a ride to get on. I enjoyed it at the time and even though in hindsight it doesn’t work as well as it seemed, I still kind of want to go again soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.