© 2008 Ray Wong
Based on a story about Jeffrey Ma, one of the six M.I.T. students who succeeded in cheating Vegas, 21 is an interesting thriller featuring charming young actors and a premise that may prompt you to hit the casinos.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is an A student at M.I.T. who is gifted in Math. Sort of a genius, actually. He's just been accepted to Harvard Medical School but he's coming up short in the finance department. He figures he needs $350,000. Except for trying his hands on a coveted scholarship, he has no way of fulfilling that dream. That is, until his Math professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), asks him to join his after-school club.
It turns out that it's not just any academic club, but a special group of students who are learning to beat the system -- Vegas casinos, to be precise. The group includes beautiful Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), goofy Choi (Aaron Yoo), spunky Kianna (Liza Lapira) and cocky Fisher (Jacob Pitts). Micky has invented a sure-fire way of beating the casinos at Blackjack, but the group has to work as a team. Lured by the promises and an opportunity to get close to Jill, Ben agrees to join the team but stresses that he'll be done once he makes the $350,000.
Soon, however, Ben is seduced by the Sin City: the fancy cars and clothes, the complimentary suites and champagne, the girl and, most of all, how easy it is to make money. Ben realizes he's really good at it, and he reaches his goal in no time. But he can't stop. He's sucked into the game just as he told himself he wouldn't. When casino "stop loss" agent Cole Williams (Laurence Fishbourne) hunts him down, he realizes he has much more to lose then he thought.
Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) has quickly risen in the ranks as a fresh-faced actor who can do serious drama. He's effectively "ordinary" and unassuming as the Math genius. In fact, his character is most likable when he's passive. Once he gets into the driver's seat, Sturgess does a good job portraying a young man who loses his soul to temptation. Kevin Spacey (Fred Claus) exudes charm as the smug, sarcastic professor with an ulterior motive. You kind of know he's not really a nice guy, but you can't help but like him anyway.
Teaming with Spacey again since Beyond the Sea and Superman Returns, Kate Bosworth (The Girl in the Park) is almost too pretty to play a rocket science student (yeah, right), but she's very agreeable as Jill, Ben's object of affection, and does her best in an underwritten role. Laurence Fishbourne (Bobby) adds certain needed dimension to his ruthless, callous Javert-ish character.
The rest of the young cast is fine in their supporting roles, including Aaron Yoo (Disturbia),Lisa Lapira (Cloverfield), and Jacob Pitts (Eurotrip).
Written by Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool) and Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire), the story takes Ben Mezrich's book and M.I.T. student Jeffrey Ma's story and runs with it. Why they change the main characters to Caucasians, I'm not sure (the real students in Ma's story were all Asian). However, the script has an edge to it, and the dialogue is light but not dumb. Sure, they oversimplify the Math and theories in the film so that the common audience can understand -- I mean, are we to believe that senior Math students at M.I.T. are going to be stumped by a simple probability question? Still, the script has great energy, and when the characters land in Vegas, it turns into a fun thriller with interesting twists and good character development. It's not to say there aren't any irritating plot holes and character inconsistency, but the story doesn't linger long enough for them to significantly damage the film.
Director Robert Luketic (Monster-in-Law) infuses his own youth in the production. It's hip and snazzy. The pace is brisk but not frenetic. The story moves with interesting twists. Not to mention a fascinating premise -- who hasn't thought of beating the casinos? In fact, I'm eager to hit the Blackjack table soon arming myself with what I've learned (I promise I'll stop after I win $350,000!) Luketic has a good eye for movement, colors, and the editing is crisp. There's a great juxtaposition between the glitziness of Las Vegas and cold, scholarly Boston. Even when the story treads into the realm of implausibility, Luketic is able to keep it real.
21 is not serious drama. It doesn't tackle serious or deep personal issues. It's about money, sex, thrill, fun, and love. But it is entertaining and well executed. There may not be 21 reasons why you must see it, but one is enough: as Ben Campbell says while collecting his chips, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner."
Stars: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Laurence Fishburne, Jack McGee
Director: Robert Luketic
Writers: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb (based on Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content including partial nudity
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.4 out of 10