Blackjack drama merely provides familiar entertainment
"Winner winner, chicken dinner," the dealer says to Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) whenever he gets 21 - a win in the card game blackjack - which is quite often. Although the movie is not nearly as victorious at wowing the audience as Ben is at playing blackjack, it is certainly entertaining with its flashy cinematography and decent performances.
Inspired by the nonfiction book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich, "21" tells the tale of Ben Campbell, the smartest kid at MIT, who needs $300,000 to pay for his Harvard medical school education. After impressing his math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) during class one day, Jim is recruited by Micky to join an elite card counting team - comprised of four gifted students, one of whom is his love interest, Jill (Kate Bosworth). Every weekend, the blackjack team goes to Vegas to win huge sums by counting cards. The technique is technically legal, but casinos have the right to ban anyone they suspect of counting. Initially, Jim declines the offer to be part of the scheme, but he eventually gives in, adamantly stating that he will get out once he has 300 grand. Once the cash flow starts, however, Ben learns that the phrase "a means to an end" does not apply with the game of 21. Unless he gets caught by a tough and powerful security agent (Lawrence Fishburne), who is not afraid of disposing of card counters by any means necessary.
First and foremost, the screenplay was mediocre and corny - Ben's voice over (yes, there were voice overs throughout the movie) during the colorful prologue is a perfect example - and while there was a nice amount of humor thrown in, there was nothing cleverly funny, which would have been much appreciated.
The other students could have been developed further but were pretty much filler characters, only there to provide romance, comic relief or add to the drama, as if there was not enough already. Fishburne provides nothing with his "been there, seen that" act as the badass mob-like figure. In their defense, the actors did the best they could with their roles, but their performances were ultimately lackluster.
The best performances come from Sturgess, who plays Ben with a convincing American accent and believably portrays his transformation from a modest math geek to a Vegas hotshot, and Spacey, who just plays bad oh-so good. Then again, Spacey, who has done simply spectacular performances in "The Usual Suspects" and "American Beauty," just to name a few, was definitely not at the top of his game for "21," possibly because of his generic role as some sneaky mentor who takes the main character under his wing and teaches him the ropes of [blank], only to satisfy some ulterior agenda.
One of the best things about the movie was the extravagant camera work, which is artistically done and successful in gripping the viewers' attention. It is usually effective in creating the excitement of Vegas but at times, it was tritely excessive - one scene portrayed Ben, cool as a cucumber, winning chips in regular motion while everything around him was going ultra fast - but still cool.
Nevertheless, the story is fast-paced and interesting, in spite of all the banalities, and time somehow manages to slip by quickly, considering the film is two hours long. And although it is not characterized by any unique or brilliant element, "21" is a worthy feel-good movie and surely worth a view.
"21" is rated PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity and is now playing everywhere.
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