There is something about card games that makes them movie-worthy. Something that goes beyond the game itself and reveals something about the characters that are playing it. And when it comes to screen-friendly card games, blackjack is always a winner.
Blackjack appeals to movie makers because of the simplicity of the game. You don’t need to understand complex hands or clever strategies to know who is winning or losing, you simply need to see who is closest to 21. To do the same with poker is not so easy, as 2018’s Molly’s Game proved. Even with fancy on-screen graphics showing each player’s cards, it was still hard for the uninitiated to follow the game.
Blackjack also has the added appeal that you are only playing against the house. This is ideal for underdog stories of the little guy taking on the big evil casino. What’s more, the fact that blackjack can be beaten using skill alone, makes it a tangible challenge that plays perfectly into the screenwriter’s hands. Add in a few remarkable true stories about the game, and you have everything you need for some blackjack movie action.
These days there is a huge choice of different blackjack games to play online, from low stakes to power blackjack, but for the likes of James Bond, it is the live game at a brick and mortar casino that really holds interest.
You’ll find 007 at the blackjack table in Licence to Kill, with the short lived Bond of Timothy Dalton taking a break from his vengeance against Franz Sanchez to play a few hands. Of course, life is never that simple for a secret agent, and the stakes get much more serious as the game goes on.
Perhaps the most famous casino film of them all is Casino itself, the 1995 epic starring Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Sharron Stone. Here, blackjack is just one of the games played in their titular establishment, but it quickly takes centre stage when a gang are caught trying to rig the game. This turns out not to be a such wise move with Pesci’s psychotic Nicky Santoro on security.
While most blackjack movies are shown from the perspective of the players, the 1999 film Croupier gives the viewer a whole new perspective. Clive Owen stars as a frustrated author turned croupier, giving us a chance to see casino life from the dealer’s side for a change, as a host of different players come and go at his table. It’s a fascinating and original viewpoint that will change the way you see casinos forever.
There are many wildly apocryphal tales about beating the bank at blackjack, but as is often the case, the truth is stranger than fiction. Here that truth is the tale of the MIT Blackjack Team, who used mathematics and card counting to win fortunes at Atlantic City casinos in the 1990s and early 2000s. Their exploits have become not only the stuff of legend, but also the stuff of several different movie adaptations.
Perhaps the most famous telling of their remarkable tale is in the 2008 movie 21, starring Kevin Spacey, with Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth and Josh Gad. It is based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich and explains in detail just how the elaborate plan unfolded. The only detail they get wrong is using an all-American cast to portray what were predominantly Asian roles.
The MIT story was also told earlier on in The Last Casino in 2004, as well as in the 2004 TV feature documentary, Breaking Vegas. Neither of these explain the card counting system quite as well as 21, but they underline the lasting appeal of the tale. The story has been told repeatedly in movies, books and TV documentaries, and will no doubt appear again as Hollywood continues to raid its back catalogue for ideas.
Of course, no discussion about blackjack films would be complete without mentioning the 1988 Oscar winner, Rain Man. This is the perfect example of our third category of blackjack movies, the people films. Here we see chancer Tom Cruise out to exploit the mathematical genius of his autistic brother to take the casinos for all they can, not only learning blackjack strategies, but also valuable lessons about life along the way.
A similar blend of character drama and casino action can be found in the 1996 film Swingers, directed by Jon Favreau. Here we see two friends trying to work their lives out over the card table on a weekend away in Vegas. What could possibly go wrong?
Whether you are counting cards to try to beat the bank or counting on your friends to get you through the weekend, the blackjack table is the place to be in the movies. Although there is one film that card players should perhaps avoid. The 1996 Japanese film, Black Jack: The Movie, has nothing whatsoever to do with the game, but instead follows the exploits of genius medic Dr. Black Jack.