It Was in the Cards

Kevin Spacey always thought "21" would make a great movie.

After all, what could be more intriguing than a tale of math-nerd Davids taking Goliath-like Las Vegas casinos for millions of dollars?

It just took a bit longer for "21" to pay off than Spacey expected.

The movie opens in theaters today, with the double Oscar-winner playing a math professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who recruits star students for an under-the-radar card-counting team (led by Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth) whose prowess enables them to win big at blackjack.

Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions initially made a deal to bring Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction best-seller "Bringing Down the House" to the screen five or six years ago, planning to make a movie that would "make Vegas interesting again," Spacey recalls, sitting down with reporters recently at the Red Rock Resort, one of "21’s" multiple Las Vegas locations.

But that deal was with MGM, a once-legendary studio that "went into a tailspin," forcing the movie into "a holding pattern while they got bought," he notes.

By the time Spacey’s project resurfaced at Columbia Pictures (and filmed last year as "Untitled Blackjack Picture"), "all the poker shows and the Vegas series" already had made Las Vegas a familiar destination on both the big and small screens, Spacey points out.

Which in turn raised an essential question, he suggests: "How do you make Vegas interesting again?"

In part, by focusing on what makes Vegas interesting to everyone whose age matches "21’s" title.

"Every 21-year-old dreams of coming to Las Vegas," author Mezrich says during a Red Rock news conference. "Vegas has catered to it enormously." And while "the old-school Vegas still exists," the Vegas "21" depicts is "the Vegas every kid dreams about," he notes.

Just ask Jeff Ma, a card-carrying — make that card-counting — member of the original MIT blackjack team that inspired Mezrich’s book. (He has a "21" cameo as — what else? — a blackjack dealer.)

"Back when we were playing," in the 1990s, "there was not one club" in the casinos where they gambled, Ma recalls. "Now, every single casino has a club."

But when Ma and his classmates were winning millions playing blackjack — the team took in $3 million to $5 million, he says — "it was a totally different world." "There wasn’t poker on TV. Vegas was more seedy — and the idea of trying to explain" where, and how, he spent his weekends was difficult.

How to depict the students’ high-roller alternate existence represented a definite, and welcome, challenge for director Robert Luketic, who was anxious to prove he could do more than direct such comedies as "Legally Blonde" and "Monster-in-Law."

Before "21" began production, "we considered some of the Indian reservation casinos" as locations, the director says in an interview. "But they wouldn’t have the energy" Las Vegas casinos do, Luketic adds.

"There’s only one Las Vegas," he reasons. "Also, there’s a history here. Hollywood has always had a love affair with Las Vegas."

Ah, but Las Vegas didn’t necessarily return the affection. At least not at first.

"We had a very mixed reception when we came to town," Luketic says, citing some casino officials who told "21" representatives, " ‘We don’t want anything to do with you.’ "

That led "21" to approach "casinos that cater to a younger crowd" — including the Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood and Red Rock casinos. "In retrospect, it fits the movie better," Luketic acknowledges.

It also helps to have friends in high places. Spacey served as the production’s "800-pound gorilla," the director says, when it came to securing permission to film at, among other places, Wynn Las Vegas’ pricey shopping area.

When approval was slow in coming, Spacey told him, " ‘I’ll get Steve Wynn on the phone,’ " Luketic says. "The man’s connected. As a producer, he was incredibly effective in helping us navigate the Strip."

Spacey, meanwhile, downplayed some casinos’ collective doubts about "21’s" view of Las Vegas — despite the presence of a menacing enforcer (played by Laurence Fishburne), who "represented the bad old days, in a way," Fishburne admits.

Overall, casino officials "welcomed this movie that says, ‘You can come to Vegas and break the bank,’ " Spacey maintains. "Why wouldn’t casinos adore the idea of thousands of people coming here and thinking they can beat the house?"

Or, at any rate, bask in the neon-lit glow of life as a high roller.

"I understand what it’s like to be an insane person after shooting in Las Vegas," Luketic admits. "It was stressful — but thrilling."

To convey Las Vegas’ irresistible allure, Luketic wanted to capture a range of only-in-Vegas moments, from the astonishment Sturgess’ character expresses at his first aerial view of Las Vegas’ pulsating lights to the shock of walking outside, after a night of playing blackjack, to realize that the sun has risen and another day has begun.

In the movie, the Strip’s sparkling lights magically materialize in the top half of an airplane window.

"It’s the one thing first-time visitors are struck by when they come here," Luketic points out, citing "the scale, the lights, the sheer audacity of the architecture. I wanted to get a slice of that onscreen."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0272.

ad-high_impact_4
Entertainment
Famous Infinity Mirror Room is open in Las Vegas
Yayoi Kusama's "Aftermath of Obliteration of Infinity" mirror room is open at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Glittering Lights dazzles Las Vegas
The Glittering Lights holiday display is shining at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Mat Luschek/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Skybar at Waldorf Astoria lets you sip your way through Las Vegas history
Skybar At Waldorf Astoria Lets You Sip Your Way Through Las Vegas History (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Stan Lee in Las Vegas for Madame Tussauds unveiling
Stan Lee Las Vegas speaks with the Review-Journal's Chris Lawrence about his love for his fans and shared universes. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ultimate Belgium Waffle Sundae at Lavo
Lavo at the Palazzo serves a 16-scoop ice cream sundae that costs $800. (Rochelle Ricahrds, Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
A New Zip Line Is Opening On The Las Vegas Strip
A New Zip Line Is Opening On The Las Vegas Strip (Janna Karel lLas Vegas Review-Journal)
You'll need a keen eye to find this secret bar on the Las Vegas Strip
You'll need a keen eye to find this secret bar on the Las Vegas Strip (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
"The Lion King" roars into Las Vegas
New music club 172 brings loud luxury to Las Vegas
New music venue at the Rio brings rock ’n’ roll and food together at intimate club. K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Fans fear for Zak Bagans’ safety in Las Vegas Halloween TV special
Fly Linq zip line time lapse
Fly Linq zip line timelapse
Shaq opens Las Vegas restaurant, Big Chicken
Shaq opens Las Vegas restaurant, Big Chicken
Robert Deniro And Chef Nobu Talk About The Success Of Nobu
Robert Deniro And Chef Nobu Talk About The Success Of Nobu (Al Mancini Las Vegas Review-journal)
Nevada Ballet Theatre rehearses for "Dracula" at The Smith Center
Nevada Ballet Theatre rehearses for "Dracula" at The Smith Center (Janna Karel/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Downtown Summerlin hosts its annual Festival of Arts
People crowd to Downtown Summerlin for the 23rd annual Summerlin Festival of Arts in Las Vegas, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bellagio, MGM Resorts International’s luxury hotel turns 20
The more than 3,000-room Bellagio hotel is situated on the site of the former Dunes Hotel. The Dunes was imploded in 1993, and construction of the Bellagio started in 1996. It cost $1.6 billion to build, making it the most expensive hotel in the world at the time. The Bellagio was former Wynn Resorts Ltd. Chairman and CEO Steve Wynn’s second major casino on the Strip after The Mirage. MGM Resorts International acquired the property from Steve Wynn in 2000. (Tara Mack/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Recycled Art and Cute Dogs at Summerlin Festival Of Arts
Recycled Art, Cute Dogs Abound At Summerlin Festival Of Arts (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bellagio Patisserie Creates Life-size Sculpture Of 20th Anniversary Of Cirque Du Soleil Show
Bellagio Patisserie Creates Life-size Sculpture Of 20th Anniversary Of Cirque Du Soleil Show (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
10 Most Iconic Moments At The Bellagio Fountains
10 Most Iconic Moments At The Bellagio Fountains (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jason Aldean talks about the possibility of a Las Vegas residency
Country superstar Jason Aldean discusses his feelings about playing in Las Vegas and says he'd be interested in a Las Vegas residency when the time is right at the iHeart Radio Music Festival in Las Vegas on September 21, 2018.(John Katsilometes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Block 16 Urban Food Hall Serves Favorite Foods From Across The US
Block 16 Urban Food Hall Serves Favorite Foods From Across The US (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Benny the Skating Dog could be the next Golden Knights on-ice entertainment
Benny the Skating Dog could be the next Golden Knights on-ice entertainment (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Who To Watch At Life Is Beautiful
Life Is Beautiful Setup
Workers preparing Fremont street for this weekend's Life is Beautiful festival, on Wednesday, September 19, 2018. Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal
The 46th annual Greek Food Festival will feed 25,000 people in Las Vegas
Madame Tussauds Has The Newest VR Experience On The Strip
Madame Tussauds Has The Newest VR Experience On The Strip. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Zia Records Move
Zias Records is moving from its Sahara Avenue and Arville Street location to a bigger store. (Mat Luscheck/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Students At The International Contortion Convention In Las Vegas Learn How To Bend And Twist Their Bodies
Students At The International Contortion Convention In Las Vegas Learn How To Bend And Twist Their Bodies. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Video from Fertitta wedding Sep. 1
video from @wedstagrams of Fertitta wedding at Red Rock Resort
You Can Get Vegan Unicorn Toast In Downtown Las Vegas
You Can Get Vegan Unicorn Toast In Downtown Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
ad-infeed_1
ads_infeed_2
Local Spotlight
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like