Directed by Robert Luketic
Perhaps you’ve seen the tantalizing trailers – dangerous action, clever counting and an evil Kevin Spacey in the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas. Sounds exciting, right? Too bad 21 was nothing like the movie the marketing team pretended it would be.
21 follows the plight of MIT star student and goody two-shoes Campbell (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe), who, after receiving his acceptance letter to Harvard Medical School, finds that he is unable to pay for the school’s high tuition fees. Luckily, Campbell manages to impress his professor Mickey Rosa (Spacey) in his non-linear equations class and is recruited by Rosa to join his blackjack team. Using a system of counting cards, verbal codes and secret sign language, the team is able to strategically win gobs of money from the casinos – so much, that it’s only a matter of time until they are caught by the menacing loss prevention specialist Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
The film masquerades as a sexy casino movie like Ocean’s Eleven, but at heart, it’s a poorly written teen movie like The Perfect Score, complete with awkward protagonist, school angst and obligatory sex scenes. And despite the inherent high stakes of the plot, the movie is mostly non-threatening and quite simply, boring.
Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) just doesn’t know how to create tension. The movie takes forever and a day to finally finish its setup, and once the team actually even gets to Vegas, the repetitive game play wears the premise thin. The film would have been infinitely more interesting if Luketic bothered to spend more than five seconds with the actual mathematical method behind the winning (and apparently, inaccurately represented) madness.
And while glossing over the math can be attributed to Hollywood dumbing it down for America, the characters themselves are also sorely neglected and are never fleshed out. And let’s not even talk about the unbelievable finale that could only be producers pandering to the naive idealism of teenagers hoping to breeze by any academic or financial hardships.
Working against its favor, 21 also suffers the frequent film affliction some call Hollywoodization. While marketed as inspired by a true story, the movie itself was very loosely based on the novel Bringing Down the House, which in turn was based on the happenings of the actual MIT blackjack team. Several differences in the movie adaptation include the lack of a villainous teacher and a noble cause like financing Harvard Med. However, the most controversial departure from the source material is that the film’s main protagonists, all cast as Caucasian, were all Asian in real life.
Though the production team does have two Asian supporting characters in the film behind Spacey, Sturgess, Kate Bosworth and Jacob Pitts, their roles are minimal. They are so dismissively and stereotypically handled, they may as well have not been in the film at all – for example, in almost every scene Choi (Aaron Yoo) is in, he is seen stealing something because he’s so cheap.
So, unless you like clichés, stereotypes and being able to predict everything that can and will happen in a movie, don’t watch 21. You’re cute, Jim Sturgess, but not that cute.