I don’t gamble, but I love being in casinos. There’s something fundamentally alive about them. Walk through the doors and you can just feel the energy, the elation, the panic, and the dreams being made or crushed. Nothing else is quite like it. For that reason, movies set in and around casinos always fascinate me. 21 certainly had the possibility to be one of the all-time great casino pictures, as it’s based on a true story about a group of MIT students who figured out how to count cards and subsequently won a boatload of money in Vegas. The end result is a little too pedestrian to become a classic, but it gets enough right to be worthwhile entertainment.
Based on the best-selling book “Bringing Down the House,” the movie stars Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) as Ben Campbell, a somewhat socially awkward but brilliant MIT student. His professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), picks up on this brilliance and invites Ben to join his underground group of other super-smart students. Rosa has figured out a way to count cards by assigning each a numerical value. The group goes to Vegas regularly where, using hand signals to tip one another off to hot tables, they manage to win big and then split the earnings.
Ben initially doesn’t want to take part, but he needs money desperately. He is also swayed by the presence of Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), a pretty classmate whom he’s had his eye on. Before long, he’s been fully integrated into the group and, thanks to his math prowess, is designated a “big spender” – the one who actually counts the cards and makes the bets. Flush with success, Ben starts to change from a shy brainiac into a fierce gambler unafraid to push the stakes. But all is not well: there’s rivalry within the group, and a casino “loss prevention specialist” named Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) has caught onto Ben’s tactics.
There are really two types of casino movies. The first kind portrays gambling in a very authentic light. I’m reminded of the under-rated Drew Barrymore/Eric Bana poker drama Lucky You, which went to great pains to realistically depict the game play. It was, essentially, a movie in love with the art of poker, and it took the viewer deep into the strategizing that is a major component of the game.
The other kind is more what 21 is. After carefully (and clearly) showing how the card-counting system works, director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) opts for a flashier, more music video-driven approach to the gambling scenes. (Unsurprisingly, the flick has a killer soundtrack.) All the casino scenes utilize flashy camera movements, quick cutting, and loud music. What it loses in authenticity, it makes up for in adrenaline. 21 may not be the most dedicated movie when it comes to portraying the reality of gambling, but it certainly captures the thrilling vibe you get in a casino.
The story is interesting in the way it shows teamwork. Because we can follow what Rosa’s group is doing, we’re instantly drawn in as we watch them carry it out. Everyone is assigned a role, and there’s a surprisingly thorough system of checks and balances in place. (A colleague running his/her hand through their hair means “get out…get out right now.”) At the same time, Rosa knows full well that winning has an allure that even the most concentrated player may find hard to resist. I enjoyed watching how the dynamics within the group change as its formula proves more and more successful. This leads to a couple of cool plot twists at the end.
This is the second film I’ve seen Jim Sturgess in, and so far, I like him (even if Across the Universe was one of the most massively overrated films of recent years). The guy has an inherent likeability that makes him perfect for Ben. He also projects a sense of intelligence that allows us to buy him as a near-genius. Then there’s Kevin Spacey, who’s been strangely MIA from movie screens recently. He’s the ideal match for the role, as his natural combination of intensity/charisma suits Micky Rosa beautifully. This is a man who is a born motivator. When his pupils do right, he’s their biggest supporter. When they screw up, he’s as fierce a disciplinarian as you could imagine. The performances from Sturgess and Spacey go a long way toward giving 21 its dramatic tension.
I haven’t read the book that the film is based on, but I imagine it’s probably more complex than 21 gives it credit for. Despite being based on a true story, the plot here fits comfortably into Hollywood conventions. Ben’s trajectory from bookworm to high stakes player follows a standard course, a whole subplot involving him abandoning his old friends after becoming a Vegas big shot is predictable, and it’s almost too convenient how Cole Williams so easily figures out what’s taking place. The truth has got to be a lot messier than this.
Still, I liked this movie for what it was: slick entertainment that focuses on the pull of the big win. 21 is not the deepest or most emotionally resonant of the casino films, and it doesn’t completely get the psychology of gambling the way a film like Lucky You does, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.
( out of four)
21 is rated PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: 21
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