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Review

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

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April 3, 2008

“If this house is a rocking then don’t bother knocking…just come on in!”  Stevie Ray Vaughn’s immortalized words appear as more than mere window dressing for “21”—they stand as a modus operandi for the film, a Declaration of Groove boldly emblazoned across each frame.

There is a certain wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am effect, a slight used and abused feeling, that comes on only after the credits roll. Flashy lights, pressed flesh and neon sex—”21” uses it all to sucker-punch you with tantalizingly empty vows, offering seemingly seductive rewards before a cruel realization dawns like a swift kick in the teeth: even in celluloid Sin City, the house always wins.

Something like a card shark porno, “21” cracks into the same undercurrent that sparked rare life into the Ocean’s series. There’s just something intangibly cool about riping-off Vegas. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is the most-gifted student at MIT, and is on the fast-track after being accepted to Harvard Med. But greatness comes at a price: $300,000 in tuition. 

Catching the eye of professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), Ben is invited to join a secret little society of mathematical whizzes that use their talents not to win Math Leagues, but to swindle hundreds of thousands out of the Mecca of greed by counting cards in Blackjack. The only real danger lies in Loss Prevention Specialist Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburn), a one-man task force who knows a little too much about the team’s tricks and tells. 

Don’t let this simplistic premise fool you—it’s betrayed by layers of vibrant intensity. The Strip is captured with Candy Land clarity, filtered through neon gloss and given a final waxing of sparkle. Director Robert Luketic makes Vegas look alive as he pops colors off the screen. The vision reflected in your mind’s eye is that of everything Vegas is supposed to be: the grime is given a fresh coat, the seedy underbelly swept under the rug. 

The film comes dangerously close to advertising a new American Dream: get rich quick not with hard work, but instead by swindling cash from corrupt big business. Spacey turns a wonderful card as the insidious puppet-master, preacher to a new congregation, building up his droogies into larger-than-life Robin Hoods for a new millennia.

But for as bright and brilliant the day dawns over “21,” nightfall finds the lights burned out, the paint chipped. An ending spotted miles away coupled with a formulaic sub-plot involving Ben’s two geeky friends back in drab Boston who act as greasy beggars outside, diverting too much attention away from the party with their dreary clichés and poorly dressed plotting.  These gussied up contrivances disguised as catalysts shatter the vibe; deadly blood clots killing the cool.

If you pardon “21” for its relatively few shortcomings you may find yourselves caught up in something.  Agree or not with the morality, even legality, of card-counting, you’ll catch yourself rooting for the underdogs.

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.