21

21

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

It's not much fun to be short of money. How far would you be willing to go if making money suddenly became easy? What risks would you be willing to take.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is feeling down on his luck. Shortage of money is all that's keeping him from a place studying Medicine at Harvard. Of course he doesn't have to worry about the absence of food or a roof over his head, but this is a Hollywood film, so we're expected to feel sorry for him anyway. A lifelong A-student, he's currently studying at MIT, and that's where he meets maths lecturer Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Micky runs a blackjack club in his spare time, and he wants Ben to come on board. But Micky isn't interested in gambling. He's teaching his best and brightest students to count cards. He has a system, and he plans to take on Las Vegas.

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From here on out things go pretty much as you might expect. Micky's scheme takes off, but the men who control Vegas aren't about to give up their riches that easily, and equally brilliant card counter Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is soon on the team's tale. Ben falls head over heels for fellow team member Jill (Kate Bosworth), who is bland but blonde, and the supporting cast are given little quirks so we can remember who they are. Naturally, Ben's commitment to cards has a negative effect on his studies and on his older friendships. And Micky, being a Kevin Spacey character, turns out to be less of a friend than the kids expected.

Kevin Spacey is really the highlight of the film. Every scene he's in springs to life, his laid back performance blowing the younger cast out of the water. Fishburne, though he doesn't really seem to be trying, is also impressive. Sturgess does his best to hold his own but, being a very credible 21 years of age, just isn't really that interesting. There is, however, plenty of youthful eye candy for those who like that sort of thing. It complements the glitz of Vegas which dazzles the unwary.

Of course, many people who go to see 21 will do so because they're interested in playing cards themselves. They should be aware, first and foremost, that although this is about blackjack, it isn't a gambling movie. As such, the atmosphere isn't quite as glamorised or giddy as it might be, but a lot of tiresome cliches are avoided too. Unfortunately the director doesn't seem to have made up his mind whom he's aiming the card playing scenes at. The voiceover will irritate the initiated whilst providing insufficient illumination for non-players. This film is smart about maths (a rare quality which deserves to be respected). It doesn't just throw out numbers randomly, but it does sometimes make one feel as if that's what it's doing. We watch our hero count impressively and make intelligent points in class, so we're to assume that he's intelligent. Never mind that the rest of his behaviour is often far from that.

21 has the makings of a really good, gripping story, as you'll expect if you've read the book. It's certainly good enough entertainment for a Saturday night out, but the Hollywood influence has sadly rendered it too bland and too predictable (even in its big twist) to be anything more than that.

Reviewed on: 08 Apr 2008
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21 packshot
A group of card counting college kids try to take the dealers of Vegas for a ride.
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Stephen Carty ***1/2

Director: Robert Luketic

Writer: Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, based on the book Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich.

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Laurence Fishburne, Josh Gad

Year: 2008

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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