Films

21

UK release date: Sep 8 2009


cast list

Jim Sturgess
Kevin Spacey
Kate Bosworth
Laurence Fishburne

directed by
Robert Luketic

*

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. And much like the carnal excesses offered in the City of Sin, 21 should be viewed by the general population as yet another attempt to take their hard-earned money.

The film, very loosely based on the book Bringing Down The House, follows the rise and fall of Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a maths whiz-kid and overall academic prodigy who’s finishing up his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ben’s already been accepted into Harvard Medical School, though he has a problem with trying to pay for it. You may find yourself scratching your head at this point, wondering, “How could this utterly original and compelling introduction possibly tie in with a movie about Blackjack and gambling”? Just wait.

Ben faces all the problems of your normal genius-level university student: he doesn’t have any money (a raise at his part time job to eight dollars an hour is seen as a godsend), he doesn’t have a girl, he hangs out with geeky friends, and he’s way too smart for his classes. A chance at an academic scholarship for Harvard seems slim, so Ben soon finds himself dragged into the murky world of Blackjack card counting via a gang of one-dimensional characters including residential hottie and fellow genius student Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) and the initially jovial Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey).

After a series of obvious plot twists, Ben ends up as one of the big players of the MIT card counting team, spending his weekends flying to Las Vegas, riding around in limousines, staying in luxury suites, and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars for his team and for his future education. Along the way, he shares stilted dialogue with his teammates, masters his card counting skills, and (surprise, surprise) ends up neglecting his university studies and friends for his Blackjack adventures.

For the first half of 21, conflict is almost nowhere to be seen. The only rule for the operation is to suppress emotions and simply go with the maths – always count cards, never gamble. But throughout the film Professor Rosa also stresses that no-one on the team should be caught – counting cards, as Ben is frequently reminded, is not illegal, it’s just frowned upon by certain people (like casino owners). So as an antagonist, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), appears in the form of a loss prevention supervisor fighting to keep his career alive in the face of new security software, an ultimate showdown seems inevitable.

However, the inevitable conflict certainly takes its time to surface. As Ben returns to the same casinos nearly every weekend, winning big every time, no-one seems to notice. Ben and Jimmy Fisher (Jacob Pitts), the team members playing to win, cavort around the casinos without disguise, though the other, less important team members don wigs and makeup for some reason. All team members gaze dreamingly at each other on the casino floor, even though they were told not to recognise each other. Still, their antics go by unchallenged. Even when Williams finally notices Ben’s streak of unlikely winnings, he is forced by the awful script to avoid acting on his findings until a more dramatic moment in the plot comes along.

With flat, uninteresting characters, a flawed plot, and a boring script, 21 offers interest on only one visceral level. The movie appeals to the same sense of ‘breaking the rules for your own benefit’ that other movies do better. Superior heist films like the Ocean’s 11 remake were obviously a reference point for 21, but Ben’s hackneyed adventures in Vegas offer little more than a flawed mimicry of greater films.



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