By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist March 5, 2012 at 11:02AM
The word of the Bible versus its actual intent has been the manna for religious leaders and their followers for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The result has been interpretations that run the gamut from the radical, to the conservative to the open-ended. But for most Christians, their concerns with the Bible and how it applies to them runs to the purely practical, and within those pages they seek guidance on how to navigate the murky waters of everyday life. A relationship with God is a constant negotiation, and the documentary "Holy Rollers: The True Story Of Card Counting Christians" (not to be confused with the Jesse Eisenberg movie of the same name) is a fascinating look at a group of young Christians who embark on a seemingly very un-Christian endeavor.
For most people, card counting is something cinematically associated with "Rain Man," a complex trick requiring a savant-like mind to turn the game to your advantage. But as it's explained early on in 'Holy Rollers,' it's actually not that complicated; with observation, practice and quick math skills even a novice can learn how to beat the odds at the table. This is something friends and eventual business partners Ben Crawford and Colin Jones figure out, and initially use to their advantage. But not content with keeping this secret to themselves, they soon form the Church Team, a group of pastors, congregants and believers all personally trained on how to count cards and win big at blackjack. In fact, the system is so seemingly flawless, that many of the players invest all their savings in the group, and combined with the backing of investors, they soon have a considerable bankroll which they use to begin playing, and at first, winning big. Chapters spring up in a few more locations around the country, and soon everyone involved, from the investors to the players, are earning considerable dividends thanks to a few hours work in Las Vegas or other gambling cities.
If this all sounds like a pretty dubious activity for a group of self-identified Christians to be doing, well, it is. While card counting is technically not illegal, casinos come down on the activity very hard, "backing off" (throwing out) players they recognize are using the system at the tables. So while the Church Team isn't exactly breaking any rules or laws, their activity firmly exists in a gray zone that is frowned upon. But, the members of the Church Team rationalize their activity, saying they are repurposing the evil spoils collected by the casinos and turning it into something good. It's a fairly flimsy excuse -- no matter where on the religious side of the argument you stand -- particularly when it seems the money is going directly back into the players' own pocket and not into any charitable organizations. The Church Team belives that by default, because they are Christians, the money collected from casinos is thus cleansed, but more than one member grapples with the balance between their activities and their faith.
As with any endeavor that relies on playing the odds, the Church Team's good fortunes soon turn south. Their win streak begins to wane, the skill of players begin to get rusty and the faint whiff of theft lingers over the group (each member is entrusted with a sizeable portion of cash, and report back on the hours played and their winnings -- or losses -- on the honor system). There is even, controversially, the introduction of non-Christians into their ranks. Interestingly, it never dawns on the Church Team that perhaps this is God's sign that they should stop what they're doing. Instead, Ben and Colin make drastic changes to try and get them back on course, with the risk factor increasing as their dry spell continues. And from there, some surprising changes occur, which make the second half of 'Holy Rollers' a feature film-worthy drama.
Director Bryan Storkel makes his feature debut here, and he's certainly found a compelling and unique subject, but 'Holy Rollers' doesn't always fully deliver. You wish he had dug deeper with this subjects, but granted three years of access, one gets the impression he didn't want to press Ben and Colin on some of the obvious issues touching on their faith and regarding the Church Group and their money making scheme. That said, that access and Storkel's decision to let the actions play out unjudged, does allow the viewer to bring their beliefs or prejudices to the picture and make up their own minds about whether this is a Godly mission, or a cheaply justified way to make lots of money. 'Holy Rollers' presents a world that you're not likely to see any place else, and it's definitely worth a roll of the dice for your time. [B]
"Holy Rollers: The True Story Of Card Counting Christians" arrives on DVD and VOD on March 6th. For more info on where to see the film, check out the official website.