Release Date: March 28th, 2008 (US); April 11th, 2008 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth
When it comes to playing cards there are two ways a trick can go wrong. A plethora of impressive skills, perhaps including some nifty sleight of hand, culminating in unexpected disaster. That’s the first. The finale is disappointing, but at least you get the temporary thrill of expectation. The second revolves around a bland illusion. When a trick hits all of the correct spots yet fails to sparkle. 21 is a bland card trick. Its deceptively pacey opening hints at promise however, when the hands have been laid and the chips counted, Robert Luketic’s film amounts to nothing more than a serviceable few hours.
Inspired by true events, 21 tells the tale of six MIT students and their advantageous teacher who coalesce together in order to pull off card counting blackjack victories. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is the team’s newest recruit, having joined in a desperate attempt to fund his Harvard dream. Though the Las Vegas voyagers get off to a successful start, rising tensions begin to chisel away at the group’s policy that denounces in-game emotion, and their cover is threatened.
If you struggled to follow any of the poker lingo in the opening paragraph, 21 will probably have you pulling your hair out after half an hour. (I’m almost bald now). The first few frames are snappy and strategy-led, though quite unnecessary given the content is repeated later on. In short, infrequent bursts, detailing the logistics of what our characters are doing is fine. The nature of the narrative needs some exposition to keep the film bubbling along. But we hear about rules and game play so often, and without vindication too. The film isn’t about blackjack — it isn’t about anything really — blackjack is simply a means to an end. That is how the characters see things (“It’s just business”) and it should be how we see them too. Unfortunately, writers Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb get too caught up in the explanation part that they forget about storytelling. It’s all a blur, really: stat crunching, pluses, minuses, attributing animals to numbers. Who cares?
This need to accurately relay the ins and outs of the gambling world leaves little room for narrative clarity, ushering forth an enormous helping of laziness. Coincidence is rampant from the get-go; “The Robinson is going to someone who dazzles,” a Harvard representative informs Ben, giving him his only motivation to cheat. If that wasn’t cheap enough, the interviewer goes on to tell Ben he needs more life experience. Money and life experience, huh? If only there was a quick-fix solution to both. Good thing our lead is intelligent as well, otherwise we’d be spending almost two hours — a ridiculously long run time — watching him pay his way to Harvard in a suit store. We never really believe in Kevin Spacey’s teacher by day, Vegas kingpin by night either. You’d think a flustered student would have ratted him out by now. Navigating the outing’s incredulity becomes increasingly arduous as the events dive deeper.
Kevin Spacey is pretty good though. Perhaps there is an element of phoning it in going on, but the actor’s charisma works wonders for his character even if it does accentuate the mundanity of those around him. His delivery strikes as quite perceptive on occasion. Presumably he is aware of the invariably groan-inducing dialogue. (“Ben, let the car drive by itself,” says Micky after hearing about his student’s attempt to create a self-driving car). The other performers tough it out, but they can’t overcome the bland material. Jim Sturgess is okay as the main player, never threatening to erupt from his character’s generic chains. It is worth pointing out Josh Gad, who is quite amusing as Ben’s obnoxious best mate.
The characters join the plot in the doldrums of commonality. We’ve seen it all before: the group member who succumbs to jealousy; the friend left hanging in the lurch; the suave leader with ulterior motives; the hard-to-get girl whose beauty matches her romantic indecision. Sure, 21 looks alright when the gang reach Las Vegas but even then there are so many aerial shots that we begin to wonder if the director simply has no idea what to do next. Since there is inability to conjure up any emotional connection, the filmmakers recruit surface elements to grab our attention. The bright lights and quick edits fail to yield pizazz, and even a fairly sparky soundtrack feels diluted amongst the mechanical air.
Laurence Fishburne shows up every now and again and effectively sums up the film’s failures. He plays casino security chief Cole Williams, and his moral stance is never really unfurled. Cole hates the incoming modernisation — he’s an old school guy, preferring film to digital — and the soon to be implemented facial recognition software is sure to leave him out of a job. The guy is a dick though, more or less working the antagonist role opposite our card counting clan. It is conceivable that Cole’s ambiguity is a reflection of dubious actions elsewhere, and gambling in general, but that is probably awarding too much credit to an otherwise uninspired production. So we don’t care about him.
21 is eternally insipid. Everything from plot to character diversity reeks of carefulness, even the group’s motto is tedious. (“Don’t get caught counting”). Kevin Spacey provides the occasional spark that the piece seeks dearly. It wishes to dazzle, some might say, but eventually peters out. I’m still trying to figure out why an underground gambling hub exists in a Chinese restaurant.
Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures