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Vegas drama in 21

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 21 – The Advantage Player – Featurette; Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal – Featurette; Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life – Featurette; Filmmaker’s Commentary – Commentary.

IT’S well worth taking a gamble on Vegas-based drama 21 because it has a couple of aces up its sleeve thanks to its basis in reality and the presence of heavyweight actors Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne.

Robert (Legally Blonde/Win A Date With Tad Hamilton) Luketic’s movie has been adapted from Ben Mezrich’s best-selling novel Bringing Down The House which, in turn, is based upon the infamous MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Blackjack Team who won millions at the expense of Las Vegas’ casinos because of their ability to read cards and beat the casinos at their own game.

And although certain artistic liberties have been taken, such as the inclusion of a love story and the fact that certain characters represent composites of various people, the essence of the story remains the same and the thrill therefore lies in seeing just how such a young group of students got away with it.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a shy medical hopeful whose gift for maths attracts the attention of mysterious college lecturer Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who subsequently offers him the prospect of joining his secret blackjack team and counting cards for profit.

At first reluctant, Ben eventually finds himself lured onto Mickey’s team by both the opportunity to pay his way through Harvard Med and to attract the attention of college hottie, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), also a member, and he quickly becomes an essential part of the team and their Vegas-based weekend exploits.

But it’s not long before Ben’s winning streak attracts the attention of one of the casino’s ruthless enforcers, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who begins to monitor the situation in the hope of catching all concerned, while Ben also has difficulty separating his two worlds.

Given his track record in rom-coms, Luketic deserves praise for the way in which he effectively captures the razzmatazz of Vegas and the allure of the casinos, even though he’s slightly let down by the inevitability of the story and a surprising lack of tension for the first three quarters of proceedings.

Audiences will know that Ben and company are bound to get caught eventually, but the director seems more addicted to the thrill of winning rather than creating any underlying sense of menace until very late on. Hence, Laurence Fishburne, though great, feels under-used.

Likewise, the inclusion of a romance and Ben’s inevitable tug of priorities between his geeky science friends and newfound status provide unnecessary padding when a leaner, meaner approach may have worked a lot better.

That said, the film comes alive whenever Kevin Spacey is on-screen, his charismatic professor eventually giving way to a shady gambler who is every bit as ruthless as the Vegas heavies he’s forever dodging. As usual, Spacey is a joy to watch as he expertly peels away the layers.

Of note, too, is rising British star Jim Sturgess who confidently makes the leap to leading man status (compete with strong American accent) after eye-catching turns in Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe and The Other Boleyn Girl. His portrayal of Ben expertly builds from shy, unassuming teenager to brash high roller and he never looks intimidated by some of his more illustrious co-stars.

Die-hard gambling enthusiasts hoping for some useful tips on how to count cards and make their own fortunes may be disappointed to find that the film doesn’t reveal too many tricks (unless you’re really good with figures). But in terms of providing a slick card drama with a little OC-inspired romanticism, 21 is entertaining enough, even if it never quite hits the jackpot.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 3mins
UK DVD Release: September 8, 2008