Friday, March 28, 2008

Review: 21

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Robert Luketic
Release Date: March 28, 2008
Running Time: 123 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Columbia Pictures

It is movies like this that test the film critic in me. I have two sides battling for supreme domination. On one hand there is my generally critical nature of movies themselves as films, and on the other, there is my love for the subject matter. They are two sides that I knew walking in to the theatre would go at it like a Seinfeld black and white cookie.

The movie 21 tells a story I am familiar with. It is the Hollywood version of the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, the story of six MIT students who perfected a card counting system and took Las Vegas casinos for millions of dollars in the early 1990’s playing blackjack. I use the term ‘playing’ so loosely because these kids didn’t get involved in the game to gamble. It was business and they were there to make money. And that they did. I became familiar with the story after my first trip to Las Vegas, many moons ago. The story spoke to the kid in me. The same way The Goonies made me think I was going to find treasure in the small Iowa town of my upbringing. I don’t think it was so much that I thought it was really going to happen but that it would be way cool if it did.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a financially struggling college student at MIT. Since he was a child his dream was to go to Harvard Medical School but without a full-ride scholarship, that he and 75 other students are vying for, he is about $300,000 short of tuition. Enter Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a mathematics professor and leader of the MIT Blackjack Team who offers Jim a spot in the group. He is a wily old coot. He’s a cross between the teacher he played in Pay it Forward, Eugene Simonet, and Keyser Soze. It’s an odd mix but it works on some level. It wouldn’t anywhere else but again, this is Vegas, or a Vegas movie anyway and things are off just enough for it to be par for the course. All seems to be going well for the team until Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old-school casino security agent becomes determined to take them down. And yes, by old-school I mean ruling with brass knuckles in a dingy room where no cameras are allowed. In other words, a total B.A.

Even with the inclusion of Ben’s love interest, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the real star of the movie is none other than Sin City itself – Las Vegas. A place where everyone has dreams of hitting it big. A place where the only limits are your imagination and your bank account. A place where lascivious activity is met with a blind eye and breeds otherwise naughty behavior. In other words, Las Vegas is a place where events told in the movie could really happen, or at the very least could be passed off as such easier than anywhere else.

The Hollywood touch makes the movie as slick as a newly opened pack of cards. The downside to that is that regardless of how fascinating the events are that the movie is based on, it needed to be polished to sell to the masses – not just card playing Vegas junkies like me. The upside is that 21 ended up being a lot better than I expected. I don’t know if it was so much a good movie more than it was just fun; and I’ll take that. It’s one of those movies you put on just before you go to Las Vegas so you can think of the truck loads of money you’ll have to carry home and all the elaborate ways you are going to win it.

Then you get there and bring a whole new meaning to the phrase, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****


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