Gambling movies typically focus on poker or ponies, games that offer directors a few minutes to sweat each bet. Faster games like blackjack are rare on screen. Robert Luketic's 21 suggests Hollywood has been missing a good bet.
The movie installs an MTV story line to the card-counting mechanics detailed in Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Trained by a math professor to know what's coming next in the deck, these high rollers enjoyed an astounding table streak until they got caught.
Since this is a highly cognitive scam, the challenge for Luketic was to make thinking interesting. The method of counting cards isn't simple, nor does 21 want it to appear that way (casinos will be happy about that).
But the movie makes it seem
as flashy and as enviable as the Las Vegas lifestyle these con artists embrace, with whip-crack flashbacks to code lessons and fetishistic peeks at cards and chips.
Jim Sturgess — the heartthrob of Across the Universe — plays Ben Campbell, a gifted student who wants to go to Harvard Medical School but can't afford it. A free-ride scholarship seems out of reach. Ben's knack for numbers and instinct for odds catches the eye of professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, smooth as always). Micky has a team of equally gifted students who spend weekends breaking Vegas banks.
One of the young grifters is Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth, who played Spacey's wife in Beyond the Sea). Ben has a crush on Jill that Micky uses to the gang's advantage. Once the cards start flipping, after a reel of padded exposition, 21 becomes a pretty cool movie experience.
The rush of winning is made palpable by Russell Carpenter's camera work, gaining full access to some of Vegas' best money pits, and a solid pop score that makes musical interludes appealing for a change. Ben is the only player with any semblance of characterization; the rest are identifiable only by their diverse looks and quirks.
Meanwhile, a formidable nemesis arises in Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old-school casino security man being replaced by face-scan technology. Cole needs to prove he's still necessary, and keen eyes on closed-circuit TV screens make Ben a target. Counting cards isn't illegal, but jail would be less painful than Cole getting his mitts on you.
Round and round 21 goes, and where it stops you won't exactly figure out.
Although 21 isn't foolproof, it fooled me a little bit.
The film is nothing more than a solid popcorn movie, offering a chance to see two acting pros and a bunch of attractive, relatively unknown actors keeping up. It isn't as gritty as Rounders or as glamorous as Danny Ocean's scams, but anyone stepping to the box office window is making a safe bet.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.