Pair of aces keeps '21' from busting out

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2008

"21" has several things working in its favor. First, any story about folks figuring out a way to beat Vegas has automatic appeal to anyone that's been to Vegas and promptly lost his or her shirt, i.e. everybody that's ever been to Vegas.

Courtesy Of Michaell De Luca Productions
Courtesy Of Michaell De Luca Productions

Second, the presence of Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne - both on top of their games - is enough of a pleasant distraction that it masks other problems with the film.

Did I say "several"? I meant "two." "21" has two things working in its favor. The good news is that those two things are just enough to make the whole experience enjoyable, even if entirely forgettable.

"21" is the story of what happens when a group of MIT students, led by their clever professor (Spacey), creates a system to beat the game of blackjack. In other words, they go to MIT so they're really good with numbers and are subsequently able to count cards. It's loosely based on a true story, which is like me telling you that my drive in L.A. morning traffic is loosely similar to your drive in Juneau morning traffic.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is just a dude trying to figure out how he's going to come up with the $300k it apparently costs to attend Harvard Medical. He and his two dorky friends are all nerdy smart (did I mention all these kids go to MIT?), but they're also broke. Naturally, then, when Professor Spacey realizes he has Good Will Hunting sitting in his classroom it isn't hard for him to recruit Campbell to the squad.

So, our dorky, morally pure hero joins the card-counting team and declares, "I'm only doing this for Harvard Med!" Sure, Ben, whatever you say.

The moment Ben is roped into the glitzy scheme, the movie's course is set.

We know Spacey isn't on the up and up. We know Fishburne (a casino security guru) and his fists have a meeting with Ben's face. We know things will go really well for a while, and then go really badly before turning out nicely in the end. We know we will be treated to tons and tons of obligatory montages of the Vegas strip. And we know Mr. Moralistic Campbell will be temporarily transformed by Sin City and it'll teach him a lesson.

We know all of that. There is a twist in the last act, as there should be. I won't call it "jaw-dropping" or all that surprising. But there is a twist. Finally, Ben narrates the happy ending for us and everyone lives happily ever after.

Again, what masks the fact that "21" is actually rather boring is the fact that it's Vegas. The lights, the money, the women... it's all very distracting. And it's interesting for a time learning how Spacey's crew works together to beat the casinos. Once that novelty wears off, it's up to Spacey and Fishburne to pick up the slack.

And they do. Spacey is probably the best on the planet at playing the charming jerk. He's fantastic; he's funny but dark, cool but scary. Fishburne is just plain intimidating. If I was cheating at a casino and I suddenly found myself strapped to a chair while Fishburne casually started lining his fingers with jagged rings as he prepared to beat the crap out of me ... well, there'd be tears, blubbering and who knows what else.

Like I said, "21" has two things going for it. Luckily, those two things trick you into enjoying an otherwise boring film. I'm not sure if that's a compliment.

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