Although targeted to a youthful generation, 21 will probably entertain a wider audience. It’s an enjoyable film about a group of students who take Vegas for millions by card counting at the blackjack table. Based on Ben Mezrich's true account of similar events, 21 mixes up the fast-action of Vegas, rolls in a little romance, and entices with a get-rich-quick scheme.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a M.I.T. senior who’s been accepted to Harvard Med, is in a sweet place in life. Now all he has to do is come up with the $300,000 or win a scholarship to get in. When he's told that to earn the scholarship he'll have to have something on his resume to "dazzle" the decision team, Ben has to pause and think.
So while waiting, Ben starts a meager job selling men's wear. He also hangs out with his best friends Cam (Sam Golzari) and Miles (Josh Gad), who are focused on their engineering invention for the Project 209 competition.
Because he’s a shy guy, Ben won't even pursue Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), his dream girl on campus. The classroom, however, represents a different arena where one brilliant answer after another flows from Ben like Niagara Falls. Ben’s genius with numbers leads his professor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), to make a bold move and invite him to join his team of card counters.
After the initial shock from the idea of spending weekends in Vegas and returning with bags of loot fades, Ben insists he can't seriously consider the idea. However, with heat from the teammates, including a warm nudging from team member Jill Taylor, he finally gives in.
Much like what we saw in movies like Rounders, the game is on. At first, the team gets along splendidly. They have fun, learn their craft well, and each leaves Vegas with more money than any of them can earn in a year. During this time, Ben and Jill become intimate.
While the others see this job as unending, Ben only wants to make enough to pay his medical school tuition. But when he decides to bail out, Mickey is not ready to let him go. Along with several streaks of bad luck, Ben is also devastated upon hearing that all his excellent college grades at M.I.T. have suddenly disappeared.
What makes 21 different than most other get-rich-quick films involves its many layers. Ben is certainly working against type when he enters the big world of professional black jack players. Sturgess (Across the Universe) finesse's his character like a poker hand; knowing it's only a matter of time before a good hand becomes one to throw in. There's also an interesting subplot about discovering who your real friends are.
Sturgess claims his character has a genius mind but more. "He’s at a point in his life when his brain can only take him so far. He needs something else about him, about his personality, to give him an edge – something more than just having good grades on a piece of paper."
Spacey (Superman Returns) is fine casting as the arrogant Mickey. Although his character is a first-rate teacher and cool under pressure, when his own future is threatened, he can be more conniving than the best game player. Spacey, one of the film’s producers, says, "I loved the juxtaposition between these kids’ lives in Boston -- where they were geeks with pencils in their pockets -- and the lives they make for themselves in Vegas, where they can become anybody they want to be."
Bosworth (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton) also suits her part well. Jill is beautiful, playful but sincere. Other members of the team include Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira) and Fisher (Jacob Pitts).
Laurence Fishburne plays a security officer whose part seems over the top and a little unrealistic in today's world, but I went along with it anyway. As I did for some of the "unnecessary" stuff that felt like fillers – sex clubs, endless close-ups of cards moving around the table, and repeated scenes of casino security.
Bottom line? 21 comes down to sense and not cents. Ben gets greedy, overlooks his principles and forgets his goal. But then again, he does dazzle!
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG 13" for some violence and partial nudity.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.