July 8, 2008 -- “21” is supposed to be a high tension thriller about MIT students caught up in a high stakes scheme to win millions from Las Vegas casinos through use of “card counting” and teamwork, masterminded by their Svengali professor. The film goes through the motions of such a thriller, but few thrills result. The characters are thin and believable motivation is lacking for certain key character decisions.
Jim Sturgess of “Across the Universe” stars as a brilliant young student, Ben Campbell, who is having trouble raising the $300,000 needed to pay for his Harvard medical education. The math whiz is spotted by MIT professor Micky Rosa (played by Kevin Spacey of “Superman Returns”) who runs a blackjack gambling operation on the side. He recruits gifted mathematicians like Ben and teaches them his intricate system of card counting, gives them a cash stake and turns them loose on Las Vegas, where they win big. Card counting is a system for keeping track of all cards played in blackjack. By knowing what cards are left in the deck, especially when only a few cards are left, a gambler greatly increases his odds of winning. Card counting is legal, but considered cheating by casinos whose security staffs do their best to identify card counters and bar them from playing. In the film, security consultant Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne of “Mission: Impossible III”) brutally beats card counters to discourage them. Micky Rosa's system is hard to spot because he uses teams of players and secret signals. The card counter signals when a table is ready for the taking. The actual betting is done by a player new to the table. Splitting the high-stakes bettors from the low-stakes counters makes the system harder for security to detect.
The team consists of Ben, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth of “Superman Returns”), Choi (Aaron Yoo of “Disturbia”), Kianna (Liza Lapira of “Cloverfield”) and Jimmy (Jacob Pitts of “Across the Universe”). Ben and Jimmy are the bettors, while Jill, Choi and Kianna are the counters. The system works well and after a number of winning weekends in Vegas, Ben has enough money to pay for Harvard with money left over. He gets hooked on the thrill of the game, however and the team falls apart when Jimmy gets jealous of Ben's success. Ben and Jill hook up, which leads to more complications. When Ben loses $200,000 at a blackjack table, he and Micky Rosa (when is the last time you heard of a math professor named “Micky”?) have a falling out. Soon Ben hits rock bottom and has lost all his money. He has also drifted away from his longtime friends, Miles Connoly (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari). Miles and Cam kick him off their science project team when it becomes apparent that Ben's heart is no longer in the competition. Ben devises a way to get back in the game with one last lucky draw.
Character motivations are a problem in the film. Several characters behave in fairly unbelievable ways at key times of the film in order to advance the plot. Character development is anemic as well. We never get to know much about the main characters. They are thin and flat. Two of the minor characters, Miles and Cam, are more interesting than some of the main characters. There is a bit of a twist at the end of the film, but the plot is actually pretty predictable for the most part. I agree with the consensus rating of this film, a C. I'm glad I didn't pay full price to see it.
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