Combine touches of Rounders with a little Rain Man and you will be headed in the right direction for director Robert Lueketic's latest filmed excursion. It is based on the true story of a group of MIT students who beat the system in Las Vegas, taking the casinos for a ton of cash. How close this is to the true story, I cannot say; however, it is based on the novel by Ben Mezrich called Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of How Sox MIT Students Took Vegas for Millions, based on the real life story of Jeff Ma.
I have not read the book, but I have to assume that the film is not completely true to the real story, just as the book is likely not entirely accurate. We all know how adaptations go. While I'm sure the heart of the story and the larger arc of the film is pretty accurate, it is the linking details that need a little spicing up to make the film more palatable.
The main character, who represents Jeff Ma, is Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess of Across the Universe fame (in the novel he was known as Kevin Lewis). He is a bright young student on the verge of graduating MIT and entering the medical program at Harvard. The only thing holding him back is finances; he is trying for a scholarship, but in lieue of that he is going to need to come up with $300,000.
Enter Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a math professor who has put together a team of card counters who take weekend trips to Vegas to run the blackjack tables before jetting back to Boston for class Monday morning. Well, Mickey takes a liking to Ben and his considerable talent. Using attractive fellow team member Jill (Kate Bosworth), Mickey is able to lure Ben onto the team. Together with three other students, they make a killing in Vegas.
Everything is going well; the trips are always successful and everyone is enjoying the fruits of their work. As we all know, all good things must come to an end, and that comes in the persona of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), a security head from the old school fighting the arrival of new software-based systems. This throws a wrench in the works as now they are known to the security staff and make easy targets should they return.
I know that may sound like a spoiler, but did you honestly think that something like this wasn't going to happen? It pretty much goes with the genre. Where there is gambling, there is going to be security and they always get involved. That's how it goes with this film. If you have seen a gambling film before, or even a couple episodes of Las Vegas, you know how this is going to work. That means that since we know how things are going to go, or at least have a good idea, the film has to rely on style and character to bring the audience into the story. Fortunately, 21 succeeds, more or less.
When it comes to directorial style, there is not much. The look of the film is in top form only when they are in Vegas. The style gets a little flashier, and they do a good job of showing the team at work. The collection of signals, key words, and undercover performances is rather exhilarating. However, all other scenes feel bland and rather lifeless. Sure, there is a distinctly different look between the Boston sequences and the Vegas sequences, but it is more a matter of location than any stylistic decision.
Now, what truly makes the film entertaining at all are the performances; all of them are solid. On the veteran side of the coin Kevin Spacey has fun chewing the scenery as Mickey, the leader of the team. He is smart and slimy and appears to be having a lot of fun with the role. Then we have Laurence Fishburne, who likewise seems to be having fun taking his character right to the edge. He actually has an interesting subplot that unfortunately takes a back seat to the main story. He is faced with fighting change. He comes from the old guard of field work when it comes to defending the casinos, a dying breed being forced out by new facial recognition software, new high-tech ways that make their style obsolete.
Jim Sturgess shines as the lead. He brings a conflict to Ben Campbell, a man who wants to do the right thing, but is seduced by the promise of easy money. He lets his emotions get the better of him and the audience benefits from his mistakes. Kate Bosworth does a decent job as the teammate/seductress, although her hairstyle left something to be desired. The rest of the team, played by Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, and Jacob Pitts, ably round out the cast.
Overall, 21 is not a bad film, but it does not truly excel at any aspect. Yes, it is entertaining, but it is hardly engrossing. There were moments that I liked, such as the time Ben spent with his nerd pals Miles (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari). They helped bring out the human side and give him something other than his descent into the lavish Vegas lifestyle that seduces him.
Bottom line. In the end, it is a film that is fun while it lasts, but it is hardly great. The performances are fine, the story is interesting, but the execution seems uninspired. You could definitley do worse, but I guess it does what it sets out to do — tell a fun story that diverts you for a couple of hours.