What do you get when you pull together a bunch of MIT math students and secretly send them off on getaways to Las Vegas with a legal but frowned-upon systematic way of beating the house at Black Jack? You get college students with a lot of extra cash in their pockets running around Vegas in limousines and expensive clothes. What did you expect?
On weekdays they casually walk the campus as average college students, but on the weekends they take to the tables in disguise, bilking casinos out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not the kind of company you’d expect a quiet genius like Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) to keep. He’s such a workaholic that his own mother tells him he needs to get a life. But when Ben finds himself faced with the prospect of needing $300,000 to pay for Harvard Medical school he welcomes an invitation from faculty member and team leader Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) to join the club.
Based on the true life exploits of MIT students, 21 is an entertaining twist on the heist flick. Director Robert Luketic, whose previous efforts include Legally Blonde and Win A Date With Tad Hamilton, finally breaks loose from the romantic comedy chain gang and proves he’s more than just the next Garry Marshall. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but the world doesn’t really need a second person cranking out Princess Diaries.
Luketic may be entering new territory in his own career, but his first foray into the drama/thriller genre feels a lot like other movies that have come before. At least a half-a-dozen films come to mind for me and the comparisons are unavoidable, but Luketic makes them work to his advantage. Playing on the strengths of those elements from other gambling and heist dramas, he stays true to the story he’s trying to tell, striving to avoid the clichés that could so easily creep in.
His second smart move shows up in the form of his top notch cast. Spacey is even sharper than usual, setting the perfect tone for his much younger fellow cast. Though the movie isn’t a major player in the drama department, Burgess plays his role as if it were. That extra effort makes the more emotional moments of the movie work, especially the romantic build up between nerdy Ben and foxy fellow team member Jill (Kate Bosworth). Luketic’s background in romance pays off, but his actors are the ones that sell the otherwise unlikely match up.
The movie’s major flaw, is in the timing. Luketic is right at home with the fast paced parts of the movie, showing off a new-found flair for stylized action shots and a gift for getting the most out of his actors in very short takes. He even sneaks in a brilliant cameo by a Bruce Campbell look-alike, complete with after shave joke and manly drunken brawling. When the action is on, Luketic knows just want to do. When the moments mellow, however, the blood pressure drops right out, and the movie flirts with becoming downright boring. It feels too long as well and at nearly two hours running time could stand to lose a few pounds of celluloid.
The old saying goes that the love of money is the root of all evil. It’s a principle that the movie seems to embrace, but in the end abandons in favor of several amusing if not slightly predicable plot shifts. The moral is still there, for those seeking something deeper from 21, but at its heart this is a movie meant to be enjoyed just for the fun of it.