A film review by Craig J. Koban

21  jjj

2008, PG-13, 123 mins.

 

Ben Campbell: Jim Sturgess / Micky Rosa: Kevin Spacey / Jill Taylor: Kate Bosworth / Choi: Aaron Yoo / Kianna: Liza Lapira / Cole: Laurence Fishburne

Directed by Robert Luketic / Written by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb / Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich

21 is proof positive that a film can overcome some of its more routine stock elements and predictability with solid performances, an intriguing and attention-grabbing premise, and a slick and flashy aesthetic style.  

The film is, at its heart, both a casino story and a cautionary tale of how money and the lust for it can overcome even the tamest and sincere of hearts and drive people to the pits of despair.  Nothing that 21 does is essentially groundbreaking or altogether revealing, not to mention that its underlining message seems obvious (counting cards in Vegas to make quick money will end badly...got it), but there is no denying that the film is a polished, involving, and well oiled popcorn flick.  

The psychology of gambling and the addict lifestyle is shown here in the most simplistic ways.  All of the most basic ingredients of these type of stories are here in abundance:  We have the innocent, plucky and spirited protagonist, desperate for money, that gets lured into a questionable business venture that has huge potential returns; we have the the older mentor figure that will tutor him in the ways of the get-rich-quick scheme that seems consequence free; we have the gorgeous, unattainable babe that seems readily available when the hero gets thrust into his get-rich scheme; we have the hero’s friends that grow increasingly despondent by how the hero seems to enjoy his new affluent and flashy lifestyle more than hanging around with them; and finally we have the betrayal of the mentor to the hero, which teaches the hero of how wretched his choice of teaming himself with the mentor was, forcing him to make a bold decision that could cost him his future. 

21 certainly has a basic plot that seems preordained from the get-go; nothing much that happens during its 123 minutes will have anyone surprised, notwithstanding the fact that it is populated by characters that seem cut from the cliché factory and hit every single methodical beat.  Yet, 21 is able to subvert its narrative obviousness with the earnestness of the lead performance, which makes you care about him and his plight despite its painful inevitability.  Much like the film’s hero -– whom becomes lured into a seedy underbelly of high stakes gambling - it’s easy for audiences to become equally lured in by 21’s glossy, ritzy, and tantalizing entertainment value.  The film never feels legitimate, compelling, or important, but it also never condescends by professing to be anything profound.  In short, it aims modestly at being a breezy gambling parable with humble thrills and high spirited suspense, and for that it achieves its status quo. 

The film introduces its “hero” in the form of a graduating MIT senior named Ben Campbell (in a very sincere and quietly intense performance by promising up-and-comingr English actor, Jim Sturgess).  Ben is a gifted mind, a genius who is too modest to even admit he’s one, that has high aspirations of becoming a doctor and being admitted to Harvard Pre-Med program.  There is a slight problem with his goal: money.  Harvard's combined tuition and living costs have an astronomical cost of just over a quarter of a million dollars, which Ben does not have (his recent promotion at a local Men’s clothing store, which pays him a bit more than $8 per hour, will not help him reach his financial objectives).  He has applied for a scholarship, but his chances are slim (in one sly scene the admissions interviewer states that he has to have fairly special circumstances to get it and that the last winning student was in a wheel chair, to which the he sarcastically asks Ben whether he has giving any thought to losing his legs). 

Of course, opportunity and destiny strikes when a hip and wisecracking college professor named Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, who can effortlessly play slimy and sneaky characters like this in his sleep) takes an instant liking to Ben’s extraordinary mathematical skills.  He invites him to a secret meeting where he leads a small team of other students that have devised a sophisticated and fairly fool-proof method of counting cards at blackjack tables.  The “team” visits Las Vegas on a regular basis with their scheme and makes thousands.  Of course, Ben is a noble and decent minded chap and rightfully refuses to join in at first.  After all, counting cards is illegal…right? 

Not really…as Professor Rosa keeps emphasizing (he conveniently fails to tell Ben that – if caught – you could be pummeled mercilessly by casino goons in a darkened back room).  Ben still seems unconvinced, but the allure of making tons of loot is fetching, not to mention that he has a crush on Jill Taylor, one of the Professor’s special students (Kate Bosworth, more than fulfilling this film’s quotient of necessary eye candy to lure the hero).  Needless to say, Ben turns to the Dark Side of the card-counting Force and becomes a regular of the Professor’s team, and they hit the city that never sleeps to make some serious cash.  

What Ben initially discovers is that he will have to lead a duplicitous life as a gambler (the professor has given all the team members alternating fake identities to keep security off of their backs and to not arouse suspicion).  At first, Ben is nervous and extremely timid at the tables, but he soon learns how gifted he is at what he does and the pull of the tables and his alter ego of a high stakes blackjack player becomes insatiable.  He keeps admitting that once he gets the $300,000 for Harvard that he’s “out for good” (sure, yup, uh-huh).  However, just as things are going perfectly, the head of security for one of the casinos, an old school player that knows the ins and outs of card counting, starts to suspect Ben and his teammates; he is played by Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne, who easily sells his character as a cool headed, tough, smooth talking enforcer. 

Everything else in the film falls into place with unavoidability:  Of course, Ben grows lustful of his new life as a gambler and takes Jill as his trophy babe; another once promising teammate, of course, grows jealous of Ben’s emergence and tries to sabotage him.  Of course, we see Ben getting cocky and eventually lets his guard down at the tables by making mistakes that the Professor told him never to make, which costs him thousands.  Of course, this creates a huge rift between the teacher and the student, as the teacher blackballs his protégée and reveals his true, Emperor Palpatine evil colors.  And…of course…we finally see the hero lose all that he worked so hard to gain in his gambling pursuits, which costs him his most personal friendships and self-respect, which leads him to engage in a risky scheme to retake his life back and to rid himself of his former blackjack mentor once and for all. 

21, as amazing as it sounds, is loosely – ever-so-loosely – based on fact.  It takes its premise from the pages of the best-selling non-fiction book “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” by Ben Merzich about a group of MIT card counters.  21 appropriates the very basis of that book's incredibly intoxicating premise and spins its own tale, which essentially leads the film to be more accurately labeled as "mostly pure fiction" with a "slight undercurrent of reality."   

A considerable amount of 21 seems hard to swallow at times (the techniques and signals that the team uses at the tables could be spotted by a mile away by even a non-suspicious soul, not to mention that no one seems to recognize any of them through their flimsy disguises).  Not only that, but if you were trying to keep a low profile and not let anyone on to the fact that you were part of a card counting team, wouldn't it be a bad idea to get together at Las Vegas night clubs after a major score to celebrate?  I also chuckled at a scene where the Professor and all of his student team arrive at their Las Vegas hotel together.  Again, not a good way to keep your cover in tact.  It also might not be a wise choice to practice your card counting techniques on board the airplane that is taking you to Vegas in front of hundreds of other passengers.

Yet, in the end, the reality – or lack there of – in the film does not hurt it.  21 remains fairly disposable, but very watchable and entertaining, which is greatly assisted by the decent performances.  Jim Sturgess, who just recently lent his voice talents out in Julie Taymor’s Beatle musical, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, gives a solid and believable turn as a once respectable and affable lad that makes the wrong choices; it’s easy to invest in Sturgess’ low key and dialed down charisma and affability.  Kevin Spacey is perfectly cast as the villainous teacher that showcases the actor’s gifts at being soft-spoken and displaying an under-cranked hostility and malevolence to great effect.  Fishburne, despite looking more physically bloated with every new film, is solid as the casino security enforcer, and Kate Bosworth adequately fulfills her role’s requirement of the perfunctory love interest. 

21 is certainly comprised of several rudimentary traits and has a story that reaches a fairly orchestrated conclusion without much genuine surprise (a would-be slick and surprising plot twist that shows an allegiance change between two key characters is not as clever as it later appears).  Nonetheless, the film is not undone by its standard, paint-by-numbers story mechanics and becomes a passably enjoyable gambling thriller.  There are inane story points and twists to be had, lecherous villains and plucky heroes that we've seen dozens of times before in similar films, and some logical gaps, but those are forgivable by the way 21 does a good job of quickly enticing us into its story and by providing a hero that easily allows for our rooting interest.  Those looking for startling insights into the gambling mentality need not apply; instead, this is a film that never shirks from its basic responsibility of being a lively and pleasurable gamble at the cineplexes. 

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