I’ve often said 21 is my least favorite movie. It’s far from the worst movie I’ve ever seen, and even as someone who has seen a lot of bad movies, I can still see how they have value if they’re entertaining to someone else. But as a person who loves the allure and mythology of Vegas and has blown about a new Honda Civic’s worth of money at the blackjack table over my lifetime, I take movies about gambling and Sin City very seriously, and 21 does not fit the bill at all.
I found myself getting so angry about the plot and how none of it makes sense. Yes, it was adapted from a book about real life events, and yes, the movie exercises its creative rights in tweaking those events in the name of entertainment. But the end result is something so incomprehensible that when you stop to really think about some of the situations, you just get so angry you want to go outside into the middle of the street and scream so loudly that your neighbors at your Bungalow complex will be so concerned they call 911 and then cops will show up and ask you “what’s the problem here?” and you’ll say “oh sorry officer, I just watched 21 on Netflix.”
Since I was so bothered by this movie, I carefully noted every issue I had with its plot and characters. I really don’t like the Red Letter Media or CinemaSins method of trashing a movie for the sake of entertainment. But these are really just concerns and questions after watching 21 that stick out like a painful plot splinter stuck underneath my thumb.
(If you haven’t seen 21, here’s a quick rundown of characters so you’ll understand these questions better:
Ben – Main MIT guy on Blackjack team.
Jill – Girl on Blackjack team, Ben’s crush/girlfriend
Fisher – Cool guy on Blackjack team, grows jealous of Ben
Micky – Professor who recruited Ben to Blackjack team
Cole – Guy who runs security at Vegas casinos
Terry – Guy who works in security underneath Cole)
Why would Ben go to MIT for undergrad if his dream has always been of going to Harvard Med?
“Oh I’ve been wanting to go to Harvard Med my whole life, so it makes total sense for me to enroll in the most prestigious, difficult technical school in the country and major in and devote my time something that will have no use for me with my future career goals.”
Why would Ben just follow Fisher when Fisher says you have to come with me now? “Hmm, I’ve never met you before and I am in the middle of studying, and after I asked you why I should come with you, you didn’t actually give me an answer, but sure, yeah, I’ll stop this important studying to go with you, Mr. random stranger classmate man!”
Why is Ben only earning $8 an hour at a upscale clothing store?
Sure, maybe this is just the cheapest department store in the world that pays their employees like shit. And sure, maybe the bulk of Ben’s paycheck came from commission and an hourly wage was just some sort of policy the store needed to have. But the fact that his wage is getting bumped up to $8 an hour means he was earning less than $8 an hour before that. Not a big deal on paper, but if we’re to believe this movie takes place in 2008, the same year that it was released, that means Ben was earning less than the Massachusetts minimum wage at that time! That would be illegal!
If living expenses are so high at Harvard, why couldn’t Ben just live at home?
“Living expenses are a big part of why Harvard is so expensive. But no, I can’t just live with my mom who is not far from campus at all for free, that makes no sense!”
What is the point of the test at the Asian casino?
Ben gets dragged from the Blackjack table with a bag over his head and taken into a room where men shout at him “what’s the count?” When the bag is lifted, he sees that it was just a ploy set up by Micky and friends to see if he could keep the count under pressure. I don’t get the point of this, because the biggest threat to the team isn’t one of them losing the count, it’s getting caught by security. The only thing this test teaches Ben is that if he ever gets confronted by security, he should just blab out everything about counting cards and give up the whole scheme.
Additionally, what kind of casino would allow a stunt like this multiple times? “Hmm, we’re an illegal, back alley casino with seedy clientele. But we’ll totally allow some MIT professor to play a prank on his students and disrupt our business from time to time, it’s no big deal!”
Why do they need to stuff cash in Ben’s pants?
I get why they have to put it in Ben’s pants vs. a bag, as the money will show up in a bag but not when walking through a simple security scanner. But my point is why do they even need to carry cash at all? Can’t Micky just withdraw that when he gets to Vegas? It seems extremely risky to carry $250,000 in cash on a flight when that could be easily confiscated if one of the team members gets pulled over by the wrong security guard.
What are the motivations of the other team members?
Ben has clear cut motivations for wanting to do this: he needs money for medical school. That’s a solid reason why he would put his neck out there on the line every time he goes to Vegas. But we don’t get any of these motivations from the other players except they enjoy doing this. That would be good enough a reason on its own, but it doesn’t answer another important question: If these students are so good and profitable at this, why are they still in school? Ben wants to be a doctor and he needs money for tuition, and to get into medical school, he needs to finish regular school. That answers both questions for him, but we get nothing else from the others.
Why would Micky even bother playing Fisher and Ben against each other?
If the purpose of this is for Micky to rake in money, there’s no reason why he would try to initiate a petty squabble between Fisher and Ben, or why he would even try to play favorites at all. He makes more money if everyone’s happy and involved. He should have just told Fisher “yo, drop the jealous whiny stuff, you’re losing me money.” But the fact he lets it slide and almost encourages it makes no sense.
What’s the point of wearing disguises if this new software recognizes faces?
Wearing a wig, glasses or a mustache doesn’t change what your face looks like. Sure, it can distract a person from looking at your face too closely, but a highly-advanced computer that detects faces would still be able to recognize the team regardless of what costumes they’re wearing.
Why don’t the pit bosses catch on to the arms-behind-the-back technique?
“Hmm, these young adults unnaturally cross their arms a lot and they’ve also won a lot of money! I’m sure those two things aren’t connected at all.”
Why can’t the girls play the bigger stakes Blackjack?
Ben and Fisher are the only ones who bet heavily while the girls serve just to count the deck. When Fisher and Ben leave the team. Micky says something along the lines of Ben and Fisher being the big time betters and suggests that they’re the only ones who can do it. But really, the girls are more capable than Ben of doing this, as they’ve been part of the team longer. While Ben is arguably the smartest one on the team, every person on the team is capable of card-counting and betting. It makes no sense why the girls wouldn’t be able to do that as well or why they wouldn’t even be considered to take Ben or Fisher’s spot.
Why doesn’t security catch on when Ben and Micky watch the strippers cash their chips?
“Hmm, not too long ago someone fired a fucking gun on our casino floor, officially making it a crime scene, and now one of the guys who was there when the gun went off is standing in front of the cashier watching as a bunch of strippers cash in an unusually high amount of chips. That seems totally normal!”
Why don’t Ben’s friends wonder where he is every weekend?
“Have you found it strange that Ben is gone literally every weekend? Like unreachable and doesn’t tell us where he’s going? Like he’s so unreachable he’s not even in the same city or state of us a lot of the time? Isn’t that weird?”
“I guess, but let’s not question that at all on just get on his ass about the robot thing.”
How is Cole able to monitor the screens of other casinos he doesn’t work for?
This one first peeved me when the team gambled for the first time at Planet Hollywood. After, we see Cole in a security area with a lot of screens, where it’s mentioned that his organization lost another account, this time Caesar’s. Then, another security person mentions that they got absolutely murdered in pits four and five the last couple of nights, implying this was done by the MIT team. This leads us to believe that Cole’s organization operates out of Planet Hollywood, but doesn’t answer the question of why he operates out of Planet Hollywood if his organization works for multiple casinos! Now it could be that Terry was just working at Planet Hollywood at that particular moment in time, even though his organization operates at other casinos, but then that doesn’t answer the next question…
How and why would Terry be able to go to the Riviera and interrupt Ben’s play if he has no actual authority over that casino’s operations?
Cole states that “there’s nobody left to fire us, Planet Hollywood is our last client.” If that’s the case, Cole has no authority at all to actually go to the Riviera and stop Ben from playing. It could just be that everyone gets a bit intimidated when they see professional Vegas guys in suits sit down next to you, but they literally have no authority to make Ben to stop. The movie also makes it look like Cole arrived at the Riviera just a second after receiving that call, but if you know anything about Vegas geography, where the Riviera used to be is at least a 40-minute walk away, and not that much better driving in crazy strip traffic. Also, if Cole knew that Jill was an accomplice, why would he let her get away so easily? Wouldn’t he want to question her as well? This was all prompted by a phone call that Terry received, which begs the question…
Why would Terry take an unsolicited call from Micky?
“Hello, Terry, important Vegas security guy? Yes, this is random man who refuses to give his name. There is a person at a casino you don’t have any association with that’s counting cards. I have no pictures or footage to prove this, but drop everything you’re doing and follow this tip from me, the random guy on phone.”
“Absolutely random guy, we’re on it!”
Also, why is Micky at the Riviera all?
I can say pretty confidently that the team would never crash at the Riviera. This leads us to believe that Micky had just another costume on-hand to follow the team around all night or knew exactly where they were going to be. Perhaps he was lying about having to go back to Boston and knew that the team would try to operate without him. Still, him being right there in another costume at the Riviera at that very moment Ben is clearing house seems suspect.
Also, why tip Cole off at all about Ben?
“Hmm, this Vegas security guy has had it out for me for years now and would surely beat my ass to a pulp if he ever saw me again. And Ben owes me thousands of dollars and can easily win that at Blackjack. But you know what? I’ll call Cole anyway, make Ben unable to pay me more money, and make Ben more susceptible to lead Cole back to me! Yeah, that’s the right call!” I get it, Micky is petty and vindictive, but this seems out of character.
Why wouldn’t Ben team up with Fisher after Micky fucked him over on his grade?
Micky makes a point that nobody will believe Ben’s story if he comes forward. But Fisher is another person who also got screwed over by Micky. Perhaps they’re both equally scared that Micky would ruin them, but if Ben wants to prove his story is legitimate, he can do so with Fisher’s help. Hell, the rest of the team would probably come to Ben’s aid.
What happened to the team after Ben left?
Did they just go on hiatus? We’re they still playing with Micky in Vegas? Were they just throwing bags over random people’s heads at the Asian casino like they apparently do so often?
Why didn’t Jill try to locate Ben after he was dragged away?
“You disappeared Ben, I didn’t know what happened to you! Then again, I didn’t try to see what happened to you in Vegas and didn’t try to locate you back here at home in Boston. Ben, I want you to know I care about you, but not enough to actually see if you’re still alive after being dragged away by thugs in a Vegas casino, or to leave you a message on your answering machine when you get back home, I don’t think we’re at that phase in our relationship yet.”
Why would Ben agree to Cole’s scheme to lure in Micky?
“Yep, you just beat me to a pulp, and I have no reason to believe you’ll hold up your end of the bargain when I go counting cards again, and you’re putting me in an even worse situation with Micky and my academic standing now that I’m trying to entrap him. But yeah, I’ll agree to your scheme, Mr. Cole!” I get it, Ben was scared, but this is just relying on him being stupid.
Additionally, why would Micky be so easily lured in by Ben?
“Oh hey it’s Ben! My favorite student who was savagely beat down by Mr. Cole who hates my guts! Ben proved himself unreliable and probably wants to bring me down after I stole from him and failed him in class. He may even be working with Cole now too and if I go back to Vegas, I could get the shit kicked out of me! And I can still make money counting cards with my other team members or even just on my own. But you know what, I’m going to go in with the unreliable team member who wants to end me, it just seems like fun.”
Why are Ben and Jill still running once they split up from Micky?
If Cole and Ben arranged this scheme to entrap Micky, then why are the two still running once they’ve separated from him? Maybe they thought they had to run to keep their money, but under Ben and Cole’s original agreement, Ben was going to be able to keep it, no questions asked.
How was Terry able to end up in Micky’s car?
“Hello, Mr. car driver man? I’m Terry. I know you were ordered by Micky to stay here and take him to the airport, and that you have no association with me whatsoever and have no obligation to do what I say, but I’m just going to sit here in the front seat and we’re going to drive somewhere else now.” It’s possible that car was not ordered by Micky and was just waiting outside like a taxi. But then why would Micky just jump into a random limo if it wasn’t one that he ordered?
Why would MIT listen to Cole about Ben’s academic situation?
“Hello, MIT? This is Cole, a random guy from Vegas. Yeah that Ben kid you have who is failing his math class? I order you to give him an A instead of an F.”
“Ok for sure, Mr. Cole! We’re only the most prestigious technical university in the world, but we’ll adjust our academic standards and grading methods to do what you say, not a problem!”
Why would the Harvard guy be impressed by Ben’s story?
“Hmm, so you proved yourself to be someone motivated by greed and in cahoots with shady, criminal figures, and have spent most of your weekends going to Vegas instead of studying during your final year. You deserve this scholarship for sure!”
Some of these are just plot holes, and some can be explained by Ben being academically smart but not street smart and Micky being a petty and vindictive person who is motivated by greed. But what makes all of these so frustrating is that they directly contradict the key identifying traits of each of these characters. We’re told Ben is smart, but the movie is propelled forward through situations where Ben isn’t acting smart. Micky is supposedly someone who values rationality over emotion but can’t help but get all riled up and defensive when something doesn’t go his way. You can’t portray a character one way and then have them contradict themselves throughout the rest of the film.
I do have to give this movie some credit because at the time it was released, it was the first piece of pop culture in many years to bring back the idea of Vegas being a cool place for youngins to visit. Everything in the recent years prior had focused on people in their thirties or forties, focusing on their struggles of trying to get by in Vegas (Leaving Las Vegas, Pay It Forward) or people trying to keep up the mentality of oldtime, Rat Pack Vegas (Ocean’s Eleven and Thirteen). 21 was the first film in over a decade to say “hey you 20-somethings with your internets and short attention spans, Vegas is cool again! This town ain’t just for the chain-smoking grandmas who love to blow their social security checks on the penny slots! It’s for you too!”
I appreciate what 21 accomplished in that sense and I do think it deserves a lot of the credit of successfully making Vegas cool again. But that is the only positive credit I’ll give about this movie, because underneath all its style and swagger lies a wretched, disgusting, truly terrible film.
Maybe this is part of a larger theme that you can be whoever you want in Vegas and that the image we portray of ourselves is far different from who we are underneath, and that you can only learn so much in a book vs. what you get in real life. But looking at how so little of 21 makes sense and how just how poorly everything is held together, I can confidently say that the very few times this movie comes close to resembling something meaningful is not intentional. Really, those few good moments are nothing more than plain, dumb luck.