Somewhere in 21, irony dances. A
town famous for being smoothly false gets made to look,
well, even more false in director Robert Luketic's vision.
Awash in CG, the film keeps using effects to get us wrapped
up in the scam of counting cards, instead of letting us
just get caught up in the excitement.
You know the kinds of problems I mean.
Whenever a character triumphs, the shot turns to slo-mo
in order to make things seem even cooler. Code words flash
in the characters' minds to remind us of the code. Everyone
stands and looks out on a computer generated Las Vegas landscape
from the balcony of their high-roller suite. Kate Bosworth
seems really, really earnest.
Based on a true story, for whatever that's
worth, 21 takes us into the high-stakes world of
Blackjack, and a group of MIT math students that form a
coalition of counters. Led by their professor, the elusively
and vaguely evil Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), they spend their
schooldays honing their math skills and their weekends as
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and
give Luketic his due. Back at MIT things do look colder
and more mundane, so it's easy to see why narrator Ben Campbell
(Jim Sturgess) starts losing his bearings. He also loses
sight of his goal, originally intending to only earn enough
money for Harvard Medical School then quit. But the allure
of all that big money, those phoney backdrops and that magnificent
strip club meeting place all proves too much.
As often happens with these kinds of stories,
the narrative gets pulled in a few directions. Are we watching
a sad tale of corruption of an all-American boy? Or should
we get an illicit thrill every time someone hits 21 (in
slow motion) to hear "winner winner chicken dinner?"
21 offers a third option in the
form of a heist film, as Professor Rosa retired from the
game himself after making the biggest score in Vegas history,
thus almost ending the career of security chief Cole Williams
(Laurence Fishburne). Everyone's looking for one last big
pay-off, including Williams, whose career will finally be
ended by technology - facial recognition software that will
allegedly catalog card counters and keep them from getting
too near the tables.
Certainly Spacey agrees with that last
option. Early on in the film, he explains to Campbell that
everyone wears disguises in order to not be recognized,
but until the one last big score, none of the men do. Then
they're so ridiculous it feels like George Clooney will
walk by to scoop up the winnings any minute.
At least they do all have to assume false
identities, which seem to get repeated and recognized by
dealers and employees throughout the casinos. If you're
thinking this runs counter to the purpose of disguising
yourself, look! There's Kate Bosworth in a revealing outfit!
In the ingénue spot, Bosworth's Jill Taylor
has the right slightly tragic back story for Ben to uncover
and perhaps fall in love over. Because this is a movie with
attractive young people, we know it's only a matter of time
before her "we're on the team, we must not cross our streams"
stance changes so we can have a hot foreplay scene. If only
the script had a better motivation for it than we knew it
would only be a matter of time.
Though leavened with a lot of touches of
the obvious, the plot has enough natural interest to glide
it over its rough spots. Anchoring it down are three powerful
presences in the form of Spacey, Sturgess and Fishburne.
That's probably no surprise, but Sturgess was news to me,
not only nailing an American accent, but making passivity
almost commanding. He's the front-runner to play Peter Parker
in the Spider-Man Broadway show, and he does have
a lot in common with Tobey Maguire, except Sturgess has
more expressions and energy.
Ultimately, 21 wants to have it
all ways, offering moral condemnation, vicarious thrills
and of course terrific earnestness. It's not a terrible
movie; it just doesn't quite pay off as well as it promises.