Top critical review
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on 25 July 2009
The problem with films based on true stories, or perhaps the challenge, is that the story really has to be red-hot gripping because the dramatisation tends to be rather low-key and the main priority of the director is to get the story across. Well, the story is told very clearly here but it isn't that riveting a tale and it's also one that has been covered before (e.g. Rain Man, Casino, The Hangover) so it's not high on originality. In summary, a brilliant MIT student gets sucked into a secret group of card-counting blackjack players who rake in huge sums from regular visits to Las Vegas. One of the first puzzles that was never explained was how or why the genius, despite repeatedly refusing to join, suddenly changes his mind; this should be a pivotal part of the story but it happened in the blink of an eye without any explanation.
There are hardly any surprises to be seen here once you know what it's about. Everything happens according to a script that you could have written yourself, in fact on several occasions I guessed what someone was going to say next and that's exactly what they said. The script, therefore, was almost completely without imagination as the various actors played out their parts in a way that almost made me think of a documentary, or one of those recreated TV programmes in which actors play the parts of real people who have been victims of crime. It was all very low on suspense or thrills, and although I did not know it was based on a true story before watching it, it became evident within a short time. The ubiquitous love interest was so under-played that it was pointless including it at all.
The only interesting part for me was the last quarter, which covered the steps taken by the lead character to recover the winnings he had lost and his Harvard status. Had this been a work of fiction I believe that this could have been a whole lot more watchable than it was, but I can only assume that the director stuck pretty tightly to the facts and as a result the entertainment fare is modest at best.
There are numerous weaknesses to the story, not the least of which is presenting the card-counting scandals of the 1960s and 1970s in what was clearly a modern-day environment; I can only assume that the financial resources were not available to go back to that period (as they did successfully in CASINO) and took the low-cost alternative of filming it in 2008. Such compromises highlight some of the basic errors in the story; forty years ago they might indeed have taken cheats out the back of the casino and beaten them up, but today that is plainly illegal and if it were to happen a victim would simply call the police. Other mistakes include the high tipping (professional counters hardly tip at all), the placement of two 'big players' from the same team at the same table, and the fact that all of the team always entered the casino together when in reality this would absolutely not be the case. Perhaps the most glaring mistake of all was giving the impression that super-smart professional blackjack players always win and the only time that they lose is when they allow their emotions to play a part. Not true! Top class players will lose quite frequently, whether by accident or design, and this enables them to frequent the same tables regularly without arousing too much suspicion.
So the facts have been distorted when a better line of thinking would have been to present blackjack as it really is, even for professionals, and inject a whole lot more characterisation and dramatisation than this film offers. Kevin Spacey was completely wasted, and the conclusion in which he played a part bordered on the farcical - even if it was based on fact. But the leading role, played by Jim Sturgess, was actually quite convincing and he managed to convey what became a dual personality very well.
The Blu-Ray disc includes the routine features of scene selection and extras, most notably a video game of blackjack which I tried for a while but found it rather easy to lose money very quickly. I can't give this film 4 stars as that would imply that it was very good, and while 3 stars is regarded as 'critical' as opposed to 'favourable' it stands somewhere in between. A touch disappointing, but worth renting just the same.