a critiQal film review 21 (2008)

Plot: Looking for tuition money, M.I.T. student Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is recruited to join a group of gifted students who head to Vegas each weekend. With their math professor (Spacey) leading the way, they use a system of signals and count cards to beat the odds. Though counting cards isn't illegal, they have to stay on their toes if they are going to stay one step ahead of the casino's security, headed by Cole Williams (Fishburne). Based on a true story.

Reviewed
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  • ...a blackjack movie that doesn't stand out from the crowd.

Like most, we were caught up in 21‘s preview for 2 reasons. First, the fun way they showcase what a brain the lead character is (played by Jim Sturgess) when he is seen adding up the cost of a suit in his head. And, just like it’s meant to, the “based on a true story” also got our attention.

Aside from those 2 attention grabbers, however, there wasn’t a whole lot that made the film a must-see. It did seem interesting enough to see once it hit DVD, but in theaters? Naw. Nothing made it seem to be worth the big bucks.

Now that it’s on DVD, would we discover that 21 has a lot more going for it than just a few memorable sequences, or had the trailer already shown us the best parts?

Jim Sturgess, an unfamiliar name in the movie biz (basically a bit TV actor until 2005’s Across The Universe), takes on the lead role in 21 – and does a pretty decent job with it. Sure, he’s not really a stand-out actor, but he is able to work in scenes with the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Spacey without looking utterly incompetent.

The last 2 movies co-star Kate Bosworth was in (Blue Crush (2002) and Superman Returns (2006)) both turned out to be less than stellar, so most viewers won’t be expecting much from her performance in 21. Looking a bit leaner and meaner than she did in any of her previous films, her “new look” brings a bit more edginess to her role – something that doesn’t really fit with her role in the film.

Having her looking a bit rougher and tougher than lead actor Sturgess doesn’t help their on-screen chemistry, and their whole relationship seems forced and awkward. It doesn’t help that she’s supposed to be Sturgess’ moral compass, either, as her look gives the impression she’s not one to play by the rules. It’s a very odd pairing, and does nothing to help the film. Strike #3, Ms. Bosworth.

Whether Kevin Spacey is turning Verbal from The Usual Suspects (1995) into the most interesting character on-screen, or Laurence Fishburne is making Morpheus from The Matrix (1999) into the coolest human on the planet (for example), they are usually both able to imbue their characters with so much more – giving their characters a depth that couldn’t possibly be in the script. With 21, both Spacey and Fishburne seem boxed into their roles, and aren’t able to expand on their characters as much as usual. It’s disappointing, and viewers can almost see the frustration from both Spacey and Fishburne.

While the plot starts off intriguing, the film is way too predictable, and viewers will be able to see every twist and turn ages before it happens on-screen. It’s unfortunate, as 21 seems to be based on an interesting series of events.

Instead of the exciting movie viewers are expecting, viewers are left with a blackjack movie that doesn’t stand out among the other films of its kind (Rounders, Casino Royale (2006), etc.) already out there.

While it’s a decent film, viewers will be left feeling like 21 could have been a whole lot more, and will end up feeling a bit disappointed it didn’t come out better.

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