21 Movie Review – The Stakes Are High And The Payoff Has Potential

“Who wouldn’t want to go to Vegas and make a killing, not because of luck, but because you are smart about it?”  These were the words that appealed to Kevin Spacey as well as the rest of the filmmakers of 21.

In Columbia Pictures’ 21, the M.I.T. blackjack team - a group of students that has figured out how to take Vegas for millions - practices counting cards. Left to right: Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), Fisher (Jacob Pitts), Kianna (Liza Lapira), Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey)

Inspired and loosely-based on Ben Merzich’s 2002 best selling novel BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, 21 is a fact-based story about a group of gifted MIT students who use their math skills to ‘beat the house’ at Las Vegas casinos.  Director Robert Luketic ( LEGALLY BLONDE, MONSTER-IN-LAW and WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON) ventures over into territory that is unfamiliar from the traditional romantic comedies that he is used to directing.  Luketic does a good job of balancing the action of Vegas’ seductive dark side while instilling a small amount of clever and humorous moments.

The M.I.T. blackjack team - a group of students that has figured out how to take Vegas for millions - toasts its success. Left to right: Choi (Aaron Yoo), Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), Kianna (Liza Lapira), Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess)

Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne, pictured), the casinos’ primary enforcer, catches onto the M.I.T. team’s scheme and tries to take them down

The movie centers on gifted MIT student Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess) who needs $300,000 for Harvard Medical School.  He is enlisted (on the down low, of course) by math professor and statistics genius Mickey Rosa ( Kevin Spacey) to join a group of the school’s most gifted students as they crack the code by counting cards and beating the odds on blackjack.  At first, Ben is hesitant to venture to the other side of morality, as it compromises not only his standing at MIT, but also his friendships and basically everything that he stands for.  With a little coercing from the object of his affection, Jill Taylor ( Kate Bosworth) and a desperate need for money because of little hope in getting a prestigious ‘dazzling’ scholarship he is applying for, Ben realizes this could be the solution to his money problems.  The stakes are raised even further when Ben’s desperate need slowly starts to manifest into greed, cockiness and corruption as he takes his scheme to the point of no return.  The thrill of chasing the almighty dollar and becoming successful seduces Ben even further into a lifestyle and a world he never imagined.  In comes the challenge for Ben, as he struggles to keep the numbers straight, staying true to his friends and being one step ahead of the casino’s looming consultant Cole Williams ( Laurence Fishburne).

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, pictured) is recruited to join M.I.T.’s blackjack team - a group of students that uses smarts and skills to take Vegas for millions - in Columbia Pictures’ 21

Jim Sturgess does a wonderful job of portraying the role of naïve-turned-corrupt card counter Ben Campbell.  One could hardly tell that he, in fact, has a British accent, he masks it well for this film.  He had a wide range of emotions that he had to convey to the audience, and he conveyed them with ease and a sense of balance that wasn’t over-the-top.  He held his own with the witty and sharp-tongued fearless leader of the group, Kevin Spacey.


Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, pictured) is the enigmatic statistics genius who has figured out how to beat Vegas at blackjack and forms the team of students that takes the casinos for millions

Both Sturgess and Spacey are charismatic together on the screen.  Their moments as they are waxing rhetorical over statistical logic in the classroom, and sharing intense moments over winning and losing at blackjack rang true.  Kate Bosworth shares some good chemistry with Sturgess, however, it seems like she’s sorely misplaced in this group.  Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts (Kianna and Fisher, respectively) are good distinctive supporting characters, but the one supporting character of the MIT group that stands out is the brilliant, sticky-fingered kleptomaniac, Choi (played humorously by Aaron Yoo).  Whenever his character is on the screen, you can guarantee that there will be some amusing moments.  And last, but certainly not least, Laurence Fishburne does an outstanding job of playing the casino’s enforcer, Cole Williams, with fierce determination as the moral character with an immoral way of dealing with people who ‘cheat’ the system.  The film glosses a little over Cole’s back-story and provides you with enough information to justify his actions.

When M.I.T. student Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) joins the blackjack team and takes Vegas for millions, he finds himself seduced by the money, the Vegas lifestyle, and his smart and sexy teammate, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth, right)

Keep in mind that this is a movie that is “loosely-based” on the book BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE.  One should not go in and expect an exact carbon copy of this best-selling novel, as the novel and the movie will have major differences, particularly in the characters and their nationalities.  Yes, 21 is a stylized version of the book based on all the elements given by Hollywood’s standards, but nonetheless, the concept is there.  It is compelling with twists and turns and has the ability to sustain the audience’s attention as we see each character’s objective and motivation clearly. 

Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth, pictured) uses her brains and her beauty to win at blackjack and take Vegas for millions

The movie does lag in certain parts, but the beginning and end tie together like two bookends.  There are a couple of plot holes that require you to sustain your imagination, but they don’t necessarily detract from the premise of the story.  Overall, 21 is an entertaining experience and a rush for anyone who has ever flirted with the idea of trying to ‘beat the house’.  Chances are you will enjoy this film.

21 stars Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts and Academy Award® Nominee Laurence Fishburne and Academy Award® Winner Kevin Spacey.  The script was written by Peter Steinfield and Allan Loeb and directed by Robert Luketic.

21 is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content, including partial nudity.  Running time is 123 minutes. 

For more details about 21 and to enter in Sony Pictures' simulated blackjack tournament, visit the official website at (http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/21).

All images are provided by Sony Pictures Publicity

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