Sunday, June 29, 2008


Be My Ace in the Hole

While Las Vegas is Sin City personified, having been there in person actually stripped away much of the glitz and glamour that comes courtesy of various movies and television series. Maybe because I'm not a high roller (or even a simple punter to begin with) that I don't get to enjoy the sexiness that comes with attention lavished at their well-known, well-paying customers. But in any case, the mathematics of it is that the house always win, and it is not a zero sum game, always in favour of the house. A bus driver in Vagas once told me that it's simple logic - look at the hotel above the casino. The larger it is, the higher the overheads, and guess where their revenue is coming from? You guessed it.

Based loosely on a true story about a group of MIT students who utilized their smarts from what the textbook never taught them, you can trust Hollywood to sex it all up, especially with a professor in the mould of Kevin Spacey, and teammates who look like they jumped right out of glamour magazines. Being naturally smart and the cream of the crop, they get seduced by Spacey's Professor Micky Rosa, who rationalizes that they aren't cheating, but beating the system on their own numbers game through card counting. That means back to basics probability and statistics, together with some tools of the trade such as disguises, fake IDs and a whole elaborate rouse of communication using secret words and sign language.

And here's the flaw of the movie, perhaps to dumb it down for an audience because it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that signs and codewords should change each time you hit a different casino so that you won't be caught repeating the same trick over and over again to the eyes in the skies, which provided a separate sub plot dealing with the threat of security personnel being outsourced and downsized by technology, and therein making old school folks like Laurence Fishburne's Cole Williams obsolete.

Jim Sturgess is slowly getting his profile raised, last seen in these parts with Across the Universe. Here, his Ben Campbell is the A student who's just like every other A student trying their best to get to Harvard Medical School, and that sole scholarship up for grabs will be awarded to just one fella with the most impressive resume. Knowing that his chance is slim, he has to figure out how to cough up US$300K just to get himself into his dream institution, so as the tale would have it, that rationale and figure required became his excuse to take up gambling as a means to his end.

Joined by fellow students Jill (Kate Bosworth, in her third movie with Spacey after Superman Returns and Beyond the Sea), Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira) and Jimmy (Jacob Pitts) under Prof Mickey's tutelage, they hone their mathematical and social engineering skills in an expected montage, before hitting the gaming floors of Vegas to rake in the dough. And in between they will find time for a rushed romance, and constantly battle the urge of easy money, emotions running high, and all the trappings from the lifestyles of the rich. However, don't expect a lot from the supporting characters, as Kate just got to preen around looking like a pretty vase, while the token Asians get caricature roles, like a kleptomaniac.

While Spacey is his usual chilling self and Sturgess managed the pretty boy charismatic presence well, 21 still found it necessary to explain everything, from detailing every bit of plot development including laying out all necessary twists and turns out on the table neatly, and how the mathematical rouse actually worked. However, don't expect to pick up a tip or two from the movie, because it actually requires a step one for you to be a mathematical genius for mental gymnastics to be performed at the top of your head. Otherwise, you can just forget it, and just pick up a lottery ticket and hope for the best.

But what I enjoyed from the movie, is all the wink-winks with regards to the corruption that permeates through the education system, be it getting grades from your tutors, or admissions requiring exorbitant amounts of cash. Granted that the tuition fees are not cheap because of rising salaries and cost of maintaining the school, sometimes these can be contributed in nice ways which are quite above the board, in cases of having to scratch your back and having you scratch mine back.

Still, 21 made for an enjoyable heist/gambling type of movie, sans those comedic ones which HK used to put out continuously at one point in time. It has a decent, Hollywood-hyped up story to tell, with the usual message that crime does not pay, and to use your smarts wisely in the right direction. And I'd bet there will be those who will take the next 2 years honing their card counting skills in time for our own gambling tables to open in Marina/Sentosa.

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