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”Winner, winner, chicken dinner.” It’s more than hungering for a simple meal that drives a group of MIT students to Vegas every weekend, but it’s these four simple words that they’re longing to hear. Because when the blackjack dealer calls this out, it’s jackpot time.
Named for the target number in blackjack, Robert Luketic’s 21 is a combination of Good Will Hunting and Casino (with a chase scene at the end where you expect the nuns from Sister Act to show up). It’s not quite as good as any of these other films, but it still deserves to be in the same league. Luketic, who brought us the confectionary films Legally Blonde and Monster-in-Law, takes a more dramatic turn with 21, which is based on the true story of MIT brains vs. Vegas brawn.
For Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), life is pretty easy — intellectually, at least. He’s got the mind of a genius and the bank account of a pauper. Unless he can quickly make some extra cash, his job selling men’s clothing for $8 an hour isn’t going to pay for the bill attached to his Harvard Medical School acceptance letter.
Hope comes in the form of a beautiful woman named Jill (Kate Bosworth). She convinces Ben to join the elusive and ultra-exclusive group of students who count cards every weekend in Vegas, turning Blackjack tables into virtual ATM machines. It’s the perfect scam — and one that inevitably will go bankrupt.
Ben is the quintessential nice guy: smart, nice to his mother, clean cut, maybe a little bland but not someone who’s going to rock the boat. Feeling there is no other way to live his dream of going to Harvard Medical School (and it’s made painfully clear this is his Holy Grail), Ben agrees to the quasi-shady scheme. Ben is joined by a cast of quirky teammates, including snobby Fisher (Jacob Pitts), kleptomaniac Choi (Aaron Yoo), and comic relief Kianna (Liza Lapira). The group goes from nerdy students to high-rolling studs.
As Jill says, ”In Vegas, you can become anyone you want.”
The real dealer of the plan is their teacher, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who’s better at creating the plan than he is at putting himself on the line. From the first minute to the last, Mickey comes off as completely disingenuous and downright smarmy. Spacey is perfect in the role, able to pack more punch into eight words than some of the other actors muster in the entire film.
The other shining star, albeit much more subdued than Spacey, is Laurence Fishburne. As Cole, a loss-prevention specialist who’s about to be replaced by technology, Fishburne is both scary and a little sad — a fine line to walk, but one that shows there is a sorrowful side to Vegas hidden behind the bright lights and noise.
Even though the start, middle, and finish of 21 is as predictable as knowing what the 52nd card in the deck is going to be, the movie does not disappoint. The simplicity of the kids’ plan is what makes it so easy for their Mensa minds to pull off; the simplicity of the film is what makes it so easy to sit back and enjoy.
Though Spacey and Fishburne are a caliber above the rest, Sturgess and Bosworth more than hold their own. 21 is another major vehicle for Sturgess, following last year’s Across the Universe, and the actor again proves he’s got potential. Aside from Boswell, who is clearly playing the love interest, the rest of the actors on the team are good enough to stay in the game but don’t eclipse the real star power.
Fuelled by quick shots during Blackjack hands, a driving soundtrack to keep the tempo up and the occasional strip-club scene, 21 moves at a good but not great pace. Perhaps it’s knowing where you’re going to end, or perhaps it’s having to join Ben on the journey all the way to rock bottom, but by the time you get there you’re more than ready for the bad guys to bust.