More chicken dinner than winner
had all the elements of a compelling, brisk, entertaining foray into the high stakes world of big money blackjack, replete with a can’t miss location: Vegas, baby, Vegas!
The film is adapted from the popular, and by all accounts thrilling, true story documented in Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.” Unfortunately, “21” folds when it should hit and ends up more run-of-the-mill, when it could have run the table.
The first few minutes set the stage nicely as we meet brilliant but strapped MIT student Ben Campbell (the affable Jim Sturgess of “Across the Universe,” sans British accent), who needs $300,000 to get into Harvard Medical School. (What, no student loans?) He initially resists the urgings of a professor (Kevin Spacey, in full Lex Luthor-like intensity mode) to join a small group of like-minded braniacs who’ll be taught the art of card counting and travel to sin city on weekends and earn a fortune. Ben is honest and noble but can’t say no when cute teammate Jill (a likable but somewhat wooden Kate Bosworth) makes one last pitch for Ben to join the club.
That’s when “21” begins to break down. Consider the reasons “Ocean’s Eleven” (and to a lesser degree its two sequels) is such a superior movie. The heist was elaborately explained in detail-the producers having understood that the more the audience knew the more it would care-yet the execution was done at such a quick pace that it seemed one step ahead. “21” also lacks the humor, glamour, and vitality of a film that should relish its environs rather than simply photographing them. (One scene shows a view from the Hard Rock Hotel overlooking Caesar’s Palace. Even neophytes will catch that faux pas.)
For all their smarts, the MIT students sure do some dumb things; one in particular having to do with where Ben hides his cash is a real head shaker. Lawrence Fishburne makes an appearance as a face smashing pit boss whose methods feel so… 1963.
It may take a rocket scientist to successfully count cards, but not to write a smarter script than what “21” delivers.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity.