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Review

Las Vegas’ glitz, glamour shine in gambling-themed ‘21’

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April 3, 2008

“At first they had everything…then it all came crashing down …”

These words can be applied to not just every episode of “Behind the Music” ever produced, but also to more movies than are humanly possible to count. It’s a time-tested formula that’s had its ups and downs, its success almost completely dependent on whether or not these flicks can get viewers to care two flips about the parties involved.

“21” is an example of how a movie can stick to its predetermined game plan pretty much to the letter, yet it has a way of getting you so wrapped up in the action that you stop caring about predictability and start having a good time.

Based on a true story, “21” centers on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a bright young kid whose grades are the pride of MIT and who hopes to move onto medical school at Harvard. The problem is that he’s nowhere near to coming up with the $300 grand that he needs for tuition.

That is, until his proficient skills catch the eye of professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). As it turns out, Rosa leads a motley crew of other students in learning the game of blackjack inside-out, and using their card-counting skills to clean up in Vegas on weekends.

Although reluctant at first, Ben’s financial situation forces him to accept Rosa’s offer, and in no time at all, he becomes the team’s star player. But with increasing success at the tables comes an increasingly big head for Ben, and his inflating ego and ensuing riskiness not only start to alienate his teammates, but also incur the wrath of a casino security specialist (Laurence Fishburne) who hates to lose.

The trick with “21” is that director Robert Luketic doesn’t just allow the film to become a slave to convention. As a good filmmaker should in this situation, Luketic takes the predictable elements he has and at least tries to make the experience enjoyable, if not totally mind-blowing.

This he easily accomplishes, presenting a story too crazy not to be based in fact with healthy amounts of energy and moxie to back it up, as well as a style that captures the glitz of Vegas while still keeping the plot grounded with the kids who are getting in way over their heads. Speaking of which, a decent ensemble job is done by the actors playing the card-counters in question, with a sympathetic turn from Sturgess leading the bunch.

Spacey does good work here as well but the most intriguing role belongs to Fishburne and his character, an old-school security consultant slowly being run out of business by the proliferation of face-recognition technology used to bust hustlers.

In a year of films that have thus far been dominated by routine, “21” has the good sense to be as entertaining as possible considering the restrictions it comes packaged with. The flick may not be all aces, but there are definitely worse movies you could fork over cash to see nowadays.

A.J. Hakari is a student at UW-River Falls.