The big complaint so far with 21 is that the premise is preposterous. I can’t argue with that, the plot comes off as pure fantasy, even though it’s based on a true story. That is the major flaw, the Achilles heel. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy every minute of this movie. It’s really some kind of miracle. If the film were boring, I would undoubtedly be on the other side here. It’s not though. The film is about a card game and yet, it’s thoroughly entertaining. 21 galvanizes you from frame one and never lets go. It’s the most entertaining movie about Sin City in recent memory; right up there with Ocean’s Thirteen.
The film is all about the hardworking Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a MIT senior who has sacrificed a normal teenage and young adult life in order to attend Harvard Medical School. He can’t afford it of course and his only chance to be able to pay for it is to win the Robinson Scholarship, which 76 other students as impressive as he are vying for.
Then a window of opportunity comes along via his math professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who takes an interest of Ben’s amazing skill with numbers. Turns out, Rosa runs a card counting blackjack team that consists of his best students. The team includes Jill (Kate Bosworth), Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira), and Fisher (Jacob Pitts). Reluctant to join at first, Ben is eventually lured in by the attractive Jill. When he joins, he is taken to Vegas and is almost instantly enthralled by the get rich quick scheme. He makes thousands of dollars each weekend, but plans to stop once he reaches the $300,000 he needs to pay for medical school. Meanwhile security counter hunter watchdog Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is high on alert. A former counter himself, he can spot one from a mile away. The question is: will Ben run out on his luck or get out before it’s too late.
Director Robert Luketic lets you know you’re good hands right from the beginning. I was very surprised at the way the story was crafted and the ending deals quite a surprise, played appropriately to the famous Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get Want You Want.” Okay, so the conclusion isn’t exactly shocking but it’s the little things that you have to look for. Luketic uses different tactics to mix things up and keep the viewer glued to the screen. We’ll start at one scene, cut off midway and move on and then double back to that scene when necessary so that everything clicks.
Ben’s character study and his transition from innocent hardworking student to obsessed card shark who has to learn a life lesson the hard way is very well handled. He’s gone through his entire life earning everything he gets with hard work, and finally something has been laid in front of him that is easy, pays a lot of money and lets him have the time of his life each weekend in Vegas. When you’re suddenly having more fun than you’ve ever had, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.
I was having just as much fun as Ben. Luketic perfectly captures the spirit of Vegas and the effect is completely absorbing. Much of the film’s appeal comes from the card scenes themselves. One of Luketic’s highest priorities had to be making sure these scenes weren’t dull. They not only hold your interest, but make you want to learn more about the game. I myself have played the game many times and I learned new things about it.
There’s a scene where the jealous and drunk Fisher tells Ben that he looks like the guy from Rain Man. Ben replies that people have said that he looks like Tom Cruise. Sturgess might have what it takes to reach that echelon. I liked him in Across the Universe as well as in 21. He’s an actor to keep an eye on. Kevin Spacey hasn’t had a meaty, award worthy role in a good long while and this certainly isn’t a career highlight, but it’s fun to watch him here as Micky, and his character reminds you that Vegas does have a dark side. Although there really isn’t a bad performance to be found, the rest of the supporting team, including Kate Bosworth, are mostly forgettable.
21 is not just a hot, sexy, energetic movie; it’s also a dark look into the city of Las Vegas and into the mind of Ben Campbell. Symbolized by greed and consequences, the film even has some moments of sincerity. Again, almost everything that happens is unbelievable, but cynical audiences need not apply here. Chalk this one up as the year’s biggest guilty pleasure thus far.