Anthony's Film Review
There is a great premise for this movie, but its execution leaves more to be desired...
The movie 21 is based on a bestselling book by Ben Mezrich, titled Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Not too long after that book came out, I was in a bookstore cafe where I happened to see a stranger reading it. I must say that I was rather intrigued by the title of the book. It told me everything I needed to know about its subject, and it had a great hook to propel itself into the New York Times Bestsellers list. I even predicted that this book would be made into a Hollywood film, and I wasn't surprised when I saw the trailer for 21 and the note that it's based on Bringing Down the House.
I bring up this anecdote because 21 is an example of a Hollywood film that has great material to work with, but doesn't do much with it. That is, it puts enough effort into the basic structure of a film and doesn't go beyond that. The result is a movie that is almost entirely predictable from beginning to end. If you have a story about a blackjack system that could guarantee millions of dollars in winnings from Las Vegas casinos, then it should be no surprise that the main character first enjoys the thrill of instant wealth, then gets into trouble with casino security and his personal life, before vowing to make things right again and stepping away from get-rich-quick schemes. But let me be clear. I'm not against standard, predictable plot formulas. I'm against standard, predictable plot formulas that don't add an extra unique flavor, or twist, to themselves.
This definitely shows in the characters. The central character, Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess), is a college student at MIT who has what it takes academically to get into Harvard Medical School, including a 4.0 GPA and near-perfect scores on the SAT and MCAT, but just doesn't have the money to pay for tuition. While there is enough detail about his current situation to explain why he would get sucked into a Las Vegas scam operation, the character still seems very bland and ordinary. Plus, there is little emotional depth with the character, not enough for me to connect with him. The same is true for four other students in the scheme, including one played by Kate Bosworth. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey and Lawrence Fishburne have interesting supporting roles as, respectively, a crooked statistics professor named Micky Rosa who masterminds the Vegas scheme and a Vegas casino security official named Cole Williams who spots something fishy, but their performances are only somewhat more memorable than those of the rest of the main cast.
Perhaps what ruined it most for me was how the film didn't explain too well the blackjack cheating system. It involves card counting, a practice that gambling aficionados may already know about. But for someone like me who knows nothing about card counting, I would've liked a more detailed explanation of it in the movie. Yes, there is mention of how high cards are valued +1, low cards are valued -1, and the rest are valued zero and how the sequence of cards dealt by the blackjack dealer determines the overall count, which influences the player's choice to hit or stay. And yes, there are code words for specific overall counts, which the students would use subtly with each other in the same casino. But that's really all the film explains. If there were a more detailed explanation about how winning is guaranteed, I would appreciate 21 more because I could then experience the same thrill that the characters are experiencing. Instead, I just had to accept the fact that the scheme works without fully seeing why.
Don't get me wrong. I do admit that the movie gets good in the second half. There are a few scenes that are dramatic, or at least more dramatic than most of the film, which is a bit dull. Plus, the dialogue isn't entirely cardboard or cliched, and the cast isn't terrible. You may be a bit more forgiving than me, so I won't be surprised if you enjoy the movie. As for me, my first impression of the script just stuck, and the rest of the movie didn't entirely save itself. In the end, the chance that I would give 21 a 6/10 rating (marginally positive) went down. I would have to give this movie a 5/10 (marginally negative), because it doesn't exactly win big with creativity.
For more information about 21, visit the Internet Movie Database.