Just My Luck
"At first they had everything...then it all came crashing down." Those words describe a predictable formula used in more movies than it's humanly possible to count. 21 is an example of how a film can stick to its predetermined game plan almost to the letter -- and yet get you so wrapped up in the action you stop caring about predictability and start having a good time.
Based on a true story, 21 centers on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a bright young kid whose grades are the pride of MIT and who hopes to move onto medical school at Harvard. The problem? He's nowhere near to coming up with the $300 grand needed for tuition. That is, until his proficient skills catch the eye of professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). As it turns out, Rosa leads a motley crew of other students in learning the game of blackjack inside-out and using their card-counting skills to clean up in Vegas on weekends. Although reluctant at first, Ben's financial situation forces him to accept Rosa's offer, and in no time at all, he's become the team's star player. But with increasing success at the tables comes an increasingly big head for Ben, as his inflating ego and ensuing riskiness not only start to alienate his teammates but also incur the wrath of a casino security specialist (Laurence Fishburne) who hates to lose.
It's not easy to build an entire movie around the idea of playing cards, but 21 manages to pull it off without allowing some of the story's more hackneyed thematics to get in the way. The film does so not by drowning so much of the script in terminology that you spend most of your time wondering what in the world the characters are talking about (you hear me, Lucky You?) but by relating the game well to the audience and giving viewers a nice, safe, predictable lead to identify with. I can't say that 21 is completely fresh and original, because it's not. Even the least astute of viewers will be able to pinpoint the turn of events down to the last ace of spades, leaving little in the way of suspense even when the situation calls for it most.
But the trick with 21 involves director Robert Luketic not allowing the film to become a slave to convention. As a good filmmaker should in this situation, Luketic takes what he has and at least tries to make the experience enjoyable, if not totally mind-blowing. This he easily accomplishes, presenting a story too crazy not to be based in fact and with healthy amounts of energy and moxie to back it up, as well as a style that captures the glitz of Vegas while keeping the plot grounded with the kids who are getting in way over their heads. Speaking of which, a decent ensemble job is done by the actors playing the card-counters in question, with a sympathetic turn from Sturgess leading the bunch. Spacey does good work here, as well, but the most intriguing role belongs to Fishburne and his character, an old-school security consultant slowly being run out of business by the proliferation of face-recognition technology used to bust hustlers.
In a year of films thus far dominated by routine, 21 has the good sense to be as entertaining as possible considering the restrictions it comes packaged with. It may not be all aces, but there are definitely worse movies you could fork over cash to see nowadays.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some violence and partial nudity.)