Just as Las Vegas veterans know that the house always wins, moviegoers know what happens to wide-eyed kids who strike it rich by ignoring the angels on their shoulders. Still, a predictable rise and fall doesn’t keep the ride in 21 from being enjoyable. Moviegoers should respond well at the box-office to the film’s glossy pleasures.
The true – if sometimes too perfect to believe – story scripted by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb centres on Ben Campbell (winningly played by Jim Sturgess), a gentle brainiac whose Harvard Med dreams hinge on a scholarship he’s unlikely to get. Ben is a loving son and earnest student who rebuffs repeat invitations to join some MIT colleagues in a scheme to make a fortune counting cards in Vegas.
Only the entreaties of a lovely blonde (Kate Bosworth) change his mind. But once in, he goes the whole hog – his supernatural facility with numbers allows him to be the team’s clean-up hitter, swaggering up to blackjack tables once scouts have identified which are “hot,” then walking away with tens of thousands of dollars. The system may never fully make sense to viewers, but we can accept that the kids know what they’re doing, and with the help of a killer pop soundtrack, we enjoy going along for the ride.
Ben’s growing ego (he’s blowing off nerdy buddies and trusting his apparent infallibility) has him pointed towards a hard fall, but there are external threats to this high-roller lifestyle as well: Lawrence Fishburne, as a casino detective behind the ubiquitous “eye in the sky” surveillance cameras, has a nose for card-counters, and Kevin Spacey, as the professional behind the cheating ring, has zero tolerance for students whose brashness costs him money.
Spacey and Fishburne demonstrate a willingness to take their characters into seriously menacing territory, but director Robert Luketic (known for rom-coms such as Legally Blonde) seems not to want to exploit them fully. Spacey never quite plumbs his Glengarry intensity here, and the backstory of Fishburne’s last-of-his-breed is explored only enough to justify some plot movement.
The lack of intensity won’t matter much to the young audience to whom 21 is geared. However, escapist moviegoers happy to live out a flashy fantasy will get a brief comeuppance and still walk away from the table with a little something in their pockets.
21. Stars Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Lawrence Fishburne. Rated 18.
$35m The production budget of 21, as reported by boxofficemojo.com
$70m Is the domestic total collected in the US since its March 28 release, as reported by movieweb.com
$91m Is the worldwide box-office collection, as reported by boxofficemojo.com. The film is yet to release in some Asian nations