This review first appeared in The West Australian Newspaper
Starring Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth
Directed by Robert Luketic
Movie makers love Las Vegas and Las Vegas loves the camera. The fountains of the Bellagio, the panoramic aerial shots of the casino strip, the neon lights, even the seedy underbelly have becomes staples of the cinema and more recently television.
I can’t play cards to save my life but Australian director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) succeeds in making Vegas look so darn appealing even I wanted to get on the next flight.
Alas this seductive allure comes at a price and that’s the sacrifice of character development.
The transformation of maths genius Ben Campbell (British actor Jim Sturgess) from straight-A student nervously stuffing wads of cash in his pants to confident Las Vegas party animal living it up in bars and strip clubs is lightning fast.
So fast that when the chips are down, it’s a little hard to empathise with Ben’s won it all then lost it predicament. Ben and his buddies are brainiacs and with or without money they are going places.
Ben is a math student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose potential is spotted and preyed upon by professor Micky Rosa (a predictably malevolent Kevin Spacey).
Studious Ben lives in a dorm room, works part time in a clothing store and spends his spare time working on a robot project with equally nerdy mates.
But Ben’s life changes the night he is summoned by Rosa to view his team’s unusual but profitable extra curricular activity; card counting to make a killing at blackjack.
Rosa’s gang spend weekends living it up in Las Vegas penthouse suites and running their card counting operation using disguises and a sophisticated series of code words and signals.
Sensible Ben has no interest in joining until he receives a persuasive visit from Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth, who get to look gorgeous and not a lot else), the hot chick he has long admired from afar. He figures he will give it a go but will quit as soon as he has the $300,000 he needs for medical school.
The film was inspired by Ben Mezrich’s best-selling novel Bringing Down the House, in which the lead character Kevin Lewis was based on the exploits of Asian American MIT student Jeff Ma.
What a pity the filmmakers weren’t brave enough to cast an Asian actor as the lead rather than relegating the Asian cast to stereotypical parts as high rollers and proprietors and patrons of a seedy gambling den.
Even the lead Asian character Choi (Aaron Yoo of Disturbia) seems to have been cast purely for comic value. That said it’s hard to think of any young Asian actor with a high enough profile to fit the bill.
Ben’s world comes crashing down like the proverbial house of cards when he breaks Rosa’s golden rule. That’s also about where Luketic starts pushing his luck with the audience, making the film a good 20 minutes too long and throwing in a Hollywood revenge twist.
Although card counting is not illegal it is not exactly welcomed by Vegas casino bosses. Enter old school security expert Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who is not beyond dishing out a bit of biffo to end a suspicious winning streak.
He’s a man about to be made redundant by new surveillance technology but for now is the one thing that stands between Ben’s team operating unfettered.
I never did get my head around the count counting caper so guess I’ll continue working for a living, although it’s an entertaining notion that brain power not just luck or cheating could make you rich in Vegas.