Here's the deal: '21' is escapist fun

Posted: March 28, 2008

It's a killer tale: a band of M.I.T. math geeks goes to Las Vegas and beats the house - lots of houses - playing blackjack and raking in millions. And it's true. Read Bringing Down the House, the Ben Mezrich book.

Director Robert Luketic and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb did, and while 21 glams things up, and hams things up, it still makes for a glossy, engrossing yarn.

A title that refers to the winning blackjack score and the average age of the Cambridge, Mass., cardsharps involved, 21 centers around Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a mild-mannered brainiac recruited by a team of fellow M.I.T. students for their "club." The group's main activity involves jetting to Vegas on weekends, checking into swank hotels under fake names, and employing an elaborate system of signals and card-counting codes to beat the dealers and stack up the chips.

Math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) - a popular teacher with a wisecracking wit - is the mastermind, and Ben, a nice guy looking for the $300,000 he needs to get through Harvard medical school, signs on - lured by the flirty entreaties of teammate Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) and the flattery of Rosa, who tells Ben, "Your brain is like a . . . Pentium chip!"

Using quick cuts, whirling camerawork, and some snazzy CGI, Luketic manages to do something that directors Curtis Hanson and Martin Campbell could not in their respective gambling pics (Lucky You, Casino Royale). That is, make the card-table sequences exciting.

Sturgess, the English actor from Across the Universe, plays the affable Yank with easy charm, and as Ben gets sucked into the fast, and seemingly foolproof, blackjack scheme, the audience is with him, and then anguishes over his corruption, as he shrugs off his nerdy best buddies and - say it ain't so! - lies to his mother.

Bosworth, who starred in Luketic's cotton candy rom-com Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, doesn't have much to do apart from looking cool and hot in various wigs and wardrobe changes. Spacey, one of the film's producers, gets progressively less believable as the plot thickens, and as his dialogue takes on the conventions of a double-crossing thriller.

Aaron Yoo is amusing as the numbers whiz Choi, Liza Lapira is likewise likable as the other femme team member, and Jacob Pitts is appropriately arrogant as Fisher, a rival for Ben's spot, and for the respect of the professor.

Laurence Fishburne gets to play the heavy in a heavy-handed subplot involving an old-school casino security firm and its eagle-eyed surveillance honcho - who finally catches on to what Ben and his gang are up to.

With its copter shots of Vegas by night, a PG-13 peek at pole-dancers, and a soundtrack that includes MGMT, Peter Bjorn and John, and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," 21 makes for some slick escapist fantasy. Even if, and because, the fantasy has its roots in something real.


21 *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Robert Luketic. With Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne. Distributed by Sony Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 3 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, violence, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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