If you’re willing to overlook its weak plot, questionable backstory, and cliched moral message, 21 is almost a good movie…almost.
Loosely based on the true story of the MIT Blackjack Team, protagonist Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a down-on-his-luck MIT student and math genius whose dream of studying Medicine at Harvard is hindered only by his apparent lack of money. After learning that the competition for scholarship funding will be fierce, Ben realizes must find another way to come up with the $300,000 in tuition fees before his time runs out (gasp).
Fortunately for Ben, his gift for numbers is soon spotted by MIT math professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who (wait for it) also runs an illegal after-hours blackjack club that teaches students how to count cards. Though Ben initially refuses Rosa’s invitation, golden-haired love interest, and aspiring rocket scientist, Jill (Kate Bosworth), soon changes his mind and convinces him to join her on the team.
After learning the ropes, Ben, Professor Rosa and the rest of the club, then embark on a series of weekend adventures to Las Vegas Boulevard where they use their skills to fleece every casino they can. Unsurprisingly, Ben’s commitment to the game and his infatuation with the high-roller lifestyle begins to have a negative impact on his old life, causing him to lie to his mother and abandon his best friends.
Greed and the power of money start to corrupt poor Ben’s soul, and the movie takes every opportunity it can to cram this clichéd moral message down the audience’s throats whenever it can. From here on in, things continue to go from bad to worse for Ben as his relationship with Professor Rosa takes a nasty turn, and he suddenly becomes the target of a brutally violent casino security enforcer (Laurence Fishburne).
“…the movie takes every opportunity it can to cram this clichéd moral message down the audience’s throats whenever it can.”
In a movie that was so predictable, Jim Sturgess’ half-decent performance offered a welcome surprise and was in a different class to the rest of the cast. Kevin Spacey also had his moments, but nothing that could compare to his portrayals of Lester Burnham in American Beauty or Jack Vincennes in LA Confidential. As for the rest of the cast, they seemed to do little more than occupy space on-screen and reel off pointless lines that did little to develop their characters or generate interest from the audience.
On the plus side, what 21 lacks in storyline strength, it makes up for with style and glamor that can dazzle a less critical audience and help them drift off into a world of fantasy and lust. Las Vegas is, after all, a place of hedonistic fun where people travel to in droves to forget all of their problems. However, for anyone who finds it difficult to swallow the countless plot holes and continuous blunders these supposedly intelligent MIT students continue to make for the sloppy narrative to develop, 21 should be avoided. You would be better off playing online blackjack.
The movie was inspired by Bringing Down the House, a New York Times Best Seller that documents the real-life story of MIT blackjack card-counters and their successes. 21 had huge potential to be just as successful as the book. Sadly, whether it be the fault of novice director, Robert Luketic, or whoever was responsible for the screenplay, 21 fell very far short from the mark.