Background: Before anything else, I need to disclose a few things that colored my impression of 21. First, I went to college in Boston (specifically, at Boston University, the primary filming location for the movie) and I know my around the Las Vegas Strip. Secondly, though I don't know how to count cards, I am familiar with the story that eventually turned into Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House, which was adapted into 21 (and given the new title to avoid confusion with the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah comedy classic). Neither of those facts make me special, but together they produced a lot of distractions that other viewers might have missed. Anyway, 21 was directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-In-Law) and stars veterans Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns) and Laurence Fishburne (Bobby), along with up-and-comers Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) and Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns). Controversy has been brewing for some time about the casting of the film, since all of the original members of the actual MIT team in 1994 were Asian-American males. It's only 2008, though, so Sturgess (an Englishman) was hired as the lead for no sensible reason other than to see if he can pull off an American accent (he can't). Of course, 21 is meant to be a "loose" adaptation, and I guess the multiple documentary versions of the story weren't sexy enough (cue Bosworth, though her character has some basis in reality). Hollywoodization was the next logical step, but at least Jeff Ma, on whom Sturgess' character is based, has a cameo as a Blackjack dealer at Planet Hollywood.
Synopsis: Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is a saint and a genius. It's his senior year at MIT and he's applied for a prestigious full-ride scholarship to Harvard Medical School, but during his initial interview he's told his resume doesn't "jump off the page" and he glumly goes back to his blameless life. How will he get $300,000 to pay for tuition and expenses? Certainly not from the robotics project he's been working on with his impossibly nerdy friends, nor from his $8/hr job. Fortunately, opportunity comes knocking when his professor, Micky Rosa (Spacey), recruits him to join Rosa's secret Blackjack club, which also happens to include Ben's crush, Jill Taylor (Bosworth), on its roster. Initially hesitant, Ben is awkwardly seduced by Jill with a necktie and he decides winning at Blackjack is his only way to pay for med school. The plan is simple, and brilliant: the "spotters" will count the cards in the deck to determine the probability of what's left to play before signaling Ben in to the table to bet big when the deck is "hot." Micky takes the crew to Vegas for their first of many successful weekend trips, however hormones and tensions rage as Ben and Jill grow close and a jerk member of the team grows jealous of Ben's success. To make matters worse, Cole Williams (Fishburne) is monitoring the group's activity from his lair below Planet Hollywood, where they often play. Vegas is phasing out security firms in place of face-detection technologies, and Williams is fighting for his job and his trade. Counting cards is not illegal, but Williams will provide "services" (beatdowns) to casinos that become aware of gamblers counting at their tables. It doesn't take long before Micky's plan unravels - Ben is greedy and arrogant and Williams is waiting to strike. By this point the movie is a full-on farce, and before it casually ends we're treated to fake moustaches, cheesy dialogue and something missing from too many movies: a chase through a restaurant kitchen.
+ The nostalgia of seeing BU inside and out on the big screen. Alumni will recognize the Mugar basement, the BU Pub (and Castle), the new fitness center (new since I went there), Bay State Road and other spots. You probably won't recognize the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square (I didn't), which was apparently dressed up as a Las Vegas spa.
+ Kevin Spacey as a more believable villain than his Lex Luthor. His work since 1999 has been embarrassing, but he still has a twinkle in his eye. On the same note, Laurence Fishburne has also been underachieving lately, hasn't he?
+ The soundtrack - appropriate, energetic, and thankfully missing Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation."
+ Aaron Yoo (Rocket Science) and Liza Lapira (Cloverfield) in charming supporting roles - and I guess I appreciated that they're Asian-American.
- The almost obscenely predictable clichés: steamy Chinatown with the year-round Chinese New Year celebration and parade; "Sir - you forgot your bag" (were you holding your breath?); the clandestine, underground security dungeon (why is it always so dark in those rooms with monitors?); the 2.0.9. competition triumph; the sound of cards landing on the table with the force of an atomic bomb; "Me and Micky Rosa go way back..." (you don't say!); etc., etc., etc.
- Jim Sturgess, unfortunately. I don't know what it was here, but he didn't fit and the voiceovers were terrible. The accent and terrible script didn't help.
- The ridiculous errors in geography. I'll leave the Boston stuff alone (but - Jill lives in Quincy?) because most people aren't familiar enough with it, but the Las Vegas Strip is too well-known for such egregious errors. They stay at the Hard Rock (not even on Las Vegas Blvd.) and stroll downstairs to the brand new Red Rock Casino (about 15 miles away from the Strip)? The penthouse at the Hard Rock overlooks the Bellagio from across the street? Uh, not even close. You wouldn't put the Empire State Building overlooking Central Park. What's the difference here?
- The jaw-dropping script that featured some of the worst dialogue I've heard in years: "I've already lost everything; I don't want to lose you, too."
Writing - 4
Acting - 6
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3
Total: 35/50= 70% = C-
Last Word: Despite being a terribly-made movie in almost every aspect, 21 actually comes together as a fun and flashy weekend romp in Vegas. In that sense it's achieved its only purpose, since it would be preposterous to suggest it either tells a true story or includes any meaningful lessons. Sure to inspire a new generation of card counters in the same way Fight Club and Rounders created their respective subcultures, 21 is also the most successful commercial Las Vegas has ever produced for the college set (compared to what I accidentally saw this morning - the worst music video ever). Planet Hollywood, which opened just last year, clearly had a major advertising stake in 21, as did the Red Rock and Hard Rock casinos, neither of which are considered Vegas hotspots. Details aside, there are moments of cheap comedy (a fat kid eating Twinkies, Kevin Spacey in disguise, etc.) that try to hide the underlying tragedy: a movie that had almost unlimited potential has been turned into a lazy mess of clichés. At times like this you really have to wonder how the guy who directed Legally Blonde got his hands on the juiciest unproduced material that has come along in years. 21 strives to be a guilty pleasure at the highest level, but my inability to swallow major inaccuracies prevented me from having any fun, and more than once my movie-watching intelligence was insulted by the writing. In the end, I was left holding the bag full of chocolate gold bullion.