For most of us Las Vegas can be summed up in two words: lost wages. Everybody knows that the odds favor the casinos, but a new movie from the director of Legally Blonde would have you believe that if you are smart enough and cunning enough you can beat the house. 21 is the based on the true story of five MIT students who use their mathematical skills to bilk the casinos out of millions of dollars. It’s part Good Will Hunting part Cincinnati Kid with a little taste of The Sting thrown in for good measure.
The caper begins innocently enough with Ben Campbell (Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess) applying for a scholarship to Harvard Med. He’s a cerebral stud who has spent his entire life with his face buried in a text book in preparation for his dream of attending Harvard. When it comes right down to it though, he knows his chances of admission and scholarship would be better if he had some actual life experience.
Enter Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), math teacher by day, gambling guru by night. He runs a club of super smart students who specialize in an elaborate method of card counting that is virtually guaranteed to pay off at the blackjack tables. Every weekend they make a quick trip to Vegas, don disguises and pump up their bank accounts.
Micky, sensing Ben’s card shark potential tries to recruit him for the club. Ben is reluctant to join, but soon sees the blackjack scam as a fast easy way to make the $300,000 he needs for tuition. Once the money starts rolling in his standard issue school outfit of jeans and t-shirts is replaced with Armani threads and his old nerdy friends get swapped for new high rolling acquaintances.
Of course it isn’t all aces and face cards. Professor Micky turns out to be closer in personality to tough guy Mickey Cohen than Professor Higgins and when an ill tempered specialist in “loss prevention” (Laurence Fishburne) gets on the case Ben soon realizes that success in Vegas comes with a dangerous price.
21 is actually a few movies in one. It’s a caper story, a true-life drama (although the details have been changed considerably from what actually happened), a suspense and even a romance as Ben falls for blackjack wizard Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth in her third film with Spacey). Director Robert Lucketic, best known for fluffy comedies like Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, deftly balances the film’s various tones, and nicely delineates the drab classroom drama of the MIT scenes from the considerably more glamorous “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” feel of the gambling story.
Of the older cast members, Spacey seems set to chew through the scenery but Fishburne brings just the right amount of old school Vegas menace to the role of a casino detective with a score to settle. Of course, nobody is going to see this movie for the senior members of the cast; this one is strictly aimed at a younger audience.
Heading the ensemble of card cheaters is Jim Sturgess, an unknown British actor who made a bit of a splash last year in Across the Universe, a little seen film based on the music of The Beatles. His odd, variable American accent notwithstanding, Sturgess does a nice job anchoring the cast with a performance that sees him change from nice guy to egomaniac blackjack stud. His appealingly Paul McCartney-esque good looks allow him to be believable as the nerdy student and the high roller, but it is his trip down the rabbit hole as he tries to cram a lifetime of living and frivolity into his weekend jaunts to Vegas that make his character interesting.
Unfortunately the rest of the cast of players aren’t quite as attention-grabbing. Kate Bosworth is pretty, but pretty dull as the, well pretty blonde member of the blackjack team, while Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts aren’t given enough screen time to make much of an impression as the secondary members of the card counting crew. Only Josh Gad, a Jack Black look-a-like, stands out among Ben’s friends as a memorable character.
21 doesn’t roll as high as Ocean’s 11 but is a good bet for your weekend entertainment dollar.
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