Inspiration on the Big Screen: Blackjack in Film

Most people are inspired to start a profession or to take up a hobby by a single event in their lives. Sometimes this takes the form of a family member or a friend showing them something new and something that they get hooked on immediately, but in the modern age this event usually comes in the form of a film or even a computer game. A good friend of mine was first introduced to poker after playing a side game on the Xbox title Red Dead Redemption, astonishing considering he now plays poker for a living, but what is more surprising is that many modern day poker professionals point to the film Rounders for the moment that they decided to take up the game.

This theme occurs time and time again. Bodybuilders often cite the Schwarzenegger film Ironman as their inspiration, many fans of computer game franchises cite the parodies that mocked them (such as the episode of South Park that parodied World of Warcraft) as the things that inspired them to take up the game. Sylvester Stallone, with his films Rocky and Cliffhanger, inspired generations of boxers and climbers, whilst Hackers glamorized computers and lured 90s nerds over the dark side. Films plays a big part in our lives, showing us games, sports and trends that we have never seen before but suddenly want to be a part of. Blackjack is no different, but as this is such an old game, there are many generations of players that have been inspired by many different films.

The 1987 flick, Heat, starring Burt Reynolds, contains one of the most famous blackjacks scenes on film, when Mr Reynolds manages to turn $1.000 into $100.000 before losing it all. Let it Ride is also a good film based around gambling, as is The Sting, The Color of Money and the Dennis Hopper film Backtrack, but these aren’t likely to be what got many people into the game of blackjack.

Many modern players cite the film 21 as the one that got them into the game of blackjack. Whereas the films mentioned above concentrate on gambling on the whole, 21 is entirely about the game of blackjack, just as Rounders was entirely about poker and Ironman was entirely about bodybuilding. 21 was released in 2008 and was directed by Robert Luketic, an Australian director whose previous credits included the peppy legal comedy Legally Blonde, and the romantic comedy Monster-in-Law. Hardly the sort of person you would expect to then direct a heist film, but that’s exactly what he did and he did a very good job of it as well. In fact the film grossed nearly $25 million on its opening weekend at the box office and although it wasn’t very well received by the critics or even the audiences, it did help the game of blackjack more than any other film in the last few decades.

21 starred Laurence Fishbourne, Kevin Spacey and Jim Strugess and was based around the MIT Blackjack Team which was led by the legendary player Ben Mezrich. The film glamorizes the lives of the card counters who broke the bank at Las Vegas, and it showed audiences that as simple as blackjack is, with a little time and practice it is a game in which you can make a small fortune.

Another game centered around blackjack and card counting is The Last Casino. This Canadian-made comedy drama was released in 2004 and stars relatively unknown actors and actresses, including Charles Martin Smith, whose recent work includes small parts on TV series Fringe and Psyche, and in the film Jack and Jill vs The World, and Katherine Isabelle, whose work includes horror films Ginger Snaps and Freddy vs Jason. The plot of The Last Casino follows a deadbeat teacher who realizes that three of his students are geniuses at math and sets out to teach them about card counting, before hitting all of the major casinos in Canada. Although not very well known, The Last Casino is a very good film, much better than 21, and it is generally well received. It didn’t turn as many people to the game as 21 did, but it helped to entice many Canadians and to increase the numbers at the blackjack tales throughout the Canadian provinces.

The film Casino also introduced audiences to the glamour of big money gambling at casinos. This film wasn’t centered entirely around blackjack, but the game did feature in a number of scenes and the film had much more critical acclaim than 21. In fact, Casino is often listed as one of the best gangster films of all time and even features on some top lists of the greatest films ever made. It has a score of over 80% on Rotten Tomatoes and made close to $120 million at the box office. For something a little different, The Griswold family, headed by Chevy Chase and best known for the National Lampoon’s Vacation film and its sequels, also got in on the act with Vegas Vacation. This comedy features Chevy Chase at the blackjack tables, before his stupidity gets him into trouble as it so often does.

Other big gambling fins include California Split, House of Games and Croupier, but if you want to see the film that introduced the most players to blackjack then you should rent and watch 21. If you want to see a more interesting version then choose The Last Casino instead and if you want to see filmmaker at its best, whilst not deviating from the casino and gambling theme, then watch Robert Di Niro and friends in Casino.