Robert Luketic took a break from romantic comedies (the genre where he's been most comfortable) to direct 21
, an entertaining, while not completely comprehensible, dramatic movie adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book, Bringing Down the House
. Loosely based on the true story of a group of MIT students who made a killing counting cards at Vegas casinos, 21
makes playing blackjack look not only exciting, but profitable. Despite a few gaping plot holes, the card action and engaging cast make this film fun for even those of us who’ve had only losing experiences at blackjack tables.
Watching actors sharpen their math skills while learning to count cards could have been the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry, but Luketic’s done a good job of never letting the technical aspects of card counting, or what’s happening on the table, completely carry the story. Televised celebrity poker tournaments may still pull in good ratings, but for 21
to reach anyone beyond ardent poker players/blackjack fans, it had to keep the focus on the human drama and not on cards and chips. Fortunately, the actors of 21
are always more important than a deck of cards. Screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb and director Luketic accomplished what they needed to do in order to not lose the audience’s attention - they made playing blackjack look sexy. Personally, I’d rather have oral surgery than watch celebs flip cards around, and yet 21
kept my interest throughout.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a geeky math whiz who works at a clothing store and attends MIT. Making just over minimum wage, it’s highly unlikely Ben, as talented with numbers as he is, will be able to afford admission to Harvard Medical School after he’s finished up his senior year at MIT if he doesn't secure a scholarship. However, his chances of obtaining the much sought-after funding are fairly slim. He doesn’t have the sort of catchy, unique life experiences that would catapult his application to the top of the pile. When not studying, he works and hangs out with equally geeky friends who are building a robot for a competition. Ben’s just a guy who doesn’t normally stick out in a crowd.
Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess in 21.© Columbia Pictures
But, that all changes when Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) invites him to join a top-secret club that’s invitation-only. Rosa’s handpicked some of the sharpest math students on campus and formed a card counting club designed to win at blackjack. At first hesitant about doing something that sounds both illegal and risky, Ben gives in to the promises of riches when one of the prettiest girls on campus, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth
), uses her feminine wiles to pull him into the group. Normally the introverted Ben wouldn’t have a shot at even drawing Jill into a conversation, but as a fellow team member the two can’t help but get close.
Ben says yes but only after declaring that he’ll get out as soon as he makes enough cash to pay for Harvard. But once he gets a taste of winning, and once hundreds of thousands of dollars pile up in his dorm room, he’s hooked for good. His personality changes, there’s a swagger to his walk that wasn’t there before, and the guy who could melt easily into the background is now the center of attention in Vegas. While that’s good for Ben, it’s bad for Vegas – and casino security, led by Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), isn’t about to let the card counters go unpunished.
Here are two things I know for sure after watching 21
. One, Las Vegas has nothing to worry about when I hit the blackjack tables. I couldn’t count cards before watching the movie, and I’m no closer to grasping the concept after seeing it. And two, Jim Sturgess is going to hit it big, and I don’t mean at the casinos. This guy’s just got that something special, and following up Across the Universe
and a supporting part in The Other Boleyn Girl
was a smart move. Even though I kept expecting him to bust out with a Beatles song, Sturgess, of course, refrained from showing his musical skills and instead delivered a terrific performance that really showed off his range. And
his American accent is spot-on.
Kate Bosworth makes the lead female character into something more than just the standard love interest role. The chemistry between Bosworth and Sturgess, which is necessary to sell the story, is there. Bosworth’s Beyond the Sea co-star Kevin Spacey also plays his cards right as a professor whose main source of income comes not from teaching, but from heading up a blackjack team. And Fishburne’s appropriately menacing as the security chief out to prove he’s better at finding cheaters than any computer software system will ever be.
Jim Sturgess and Laurence Fishburne in 21.© Columbia Pictures
The Bottom Line
The disastrous Lucky You, a disjointed poker movie with Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore, might have soured some potential ticket buyers on the idea of watching a film centered around the table action in Vegas. But, lucky us, 21’s a much, much better film than Lucky You. The actual process of card counting may fly right over our heads, but the film’s smart enough and engaging enough that the math behind it all doesn’t much matter. And even when the story takes the most improbable turns (who would keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in the ceiling of their room?), Sturgess, Bosworth and the rest hang in there and work their way over the rough parts of the script.
21’s slick and flashy, and not all the cards fall into place like you'd want them to. But the packaging is so glossy and attractive that while it might not be a big winner, 21’s definitely not a bust either.
21 was directed by Robert Luketic and is rated PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity.
Theatrical Release Date: March 28, 2008