“21” tells the true story of an MIT professor (Kevin Spacey) who recruits six students and then trains them to count cards and take Vegas for millions in cash. The film is Directed by Robert Luketic and the screenplay was adapted by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, based off the book written by Ben Mezrich.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a brilliant 4.0 student finishing his final semester at MIT, and who has been accepted into Harvard Medical school. One problem: unless he can either write a glowing essay that makes his story stand out from the 70+ other students applying for the same free-ride scholarship he has, OR, he can come up with $300,000 in tuition, his dreams will go up in smoke. After impressing his new professor, Micky Rosa (Spacey), Ben is invited to a secret meeting with five other MIT students, where Rosa is teaching them to beat Vegas and earn millions by counting cards and winning at blackjack. At first Ben isn’t swayed to join the squad, but the very same girl he’s been crushing on, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), also happens to be on the team and uses her feminine persuasions to convince Ben to join. At first Ben does succeed at card counting, and earns himself and his teammates thousands, and also vows to quit after he has secured his Harvard tuition money. However, Ben soon becomes addicted to winning and finds he can’t easily walk away. Meanwhile, an old nemesis of Rosa’s, Cole Williams (Lawrence Fishburne), runs an older casino security program, takes notice of Ben and his team, and moves in to catch them.
Moving along at a painfully, and dreadfully slow pace, “21” is a perfect example of why casino and card game movies don’t usually work. Unless, of course, you’re James Bond or Daniel Ocean, and even then the pacing and timing needs to be flawless or what you get is a mess of a movie trying to employ every fancy camera trick it can to instill some sort of drama and suspense to a movie that has neither. For starters, none of the characters in this movie seem very interesting and none of the actors playing them seem believable in there roles as brilliant MIT students out for a weekend score in Vegas. Jim Sturgess, who was wonderful in Across the Universe, never striked me as anything his character was meant to be; smart, desperate and cunning. Instead he came off as the latest pretty-boy to badly ruin a movie and drag other young pretty faces down with him. The first large chunk of the movie tries hard to connect the audience with Ben, but I never felt it, and as a result I could care less what happens to him in Vegas, wiether or not he gets the hot girl, or if he is alienating his friends back at MIT. That is what happens when the main character doesn’t work. Sturgess also has a painfully bad narration throughout the entire film, which is always a sign of bad writing.
The supporting cast is also terrible in the film, even veterans Spacey and Fishburne, who both just seem lost and there to collect a paycheck, have badly written characters that not even they know what to do with. Whats worse is the two veterans have the two most cliche characters to hit the big screen in ages. Is there anyone who doesn’t see where both of there characters are going right away? The other MIT cardplayers all come off as amateurish and unlikable, even Bosworth, who has been in many films and is usually good in them, yet was reduced to the “hot smart girl” who seduces the “shy smart guy” and in a terribly uninteresting manner. Even the premise of the film would seem flawed if it wasn’t a factual story. One would only hope that living it was a lot more exciting than what Hollywood has done with the tale.
Every trick of the camera, every note of annoying hip-hoppish music to try an inject a sense of pace and urgency and every CGI enhanced “thought” by Ben when he is counting the cards all make the movie seem more muddled, boring and slow. Honestly, it seemed like they realized they only had an hour or so worth of story, so they dragged out Ben’s intro at MIT and gave us the annoying subplot with the 2-0-9 competition with his geek friends and showed as many card games as possible to fill the time. I could easily have cut about 45 minutes out of this movie, which wouldn’t have made it any better, but at least it would’ve been mercifully shorter.