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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 major players.

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.

Derek McCaw

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