Published: .

David Swindle
Grade: B
If you're going to gamble in a casino and have any intention of actually trying to keep your money - perhaps even come out on top -- there's only one place to go: the blackjack tables. It's the only game that isn't ridiculously stacked in the house's favor. There's actually a degree of skill involved in knowing when to hit, stay, double down, or split the hand.

And so there's a certain mystique to blackjack. It's there that you can beat the big, bad casino, where the ridiculous dream Las Vegas sells might actually come true if you're smart enough.

Adding further romance to blackjack is the practice of card counting. The technique is controversial because it's totally legal - it's not cheating by any means - and all a casino can do about it is ban the player if they think he's doing it. What a card counter does is keep track of what cards have been dealt. They do not necessarily have to remember every card that's been played, but rather employ a system of points to know how much "value" is in the deck. This way they can know when they're more likely to win and can go ahead and bet big then. Knowing when certain cards are more likely to come up also affects the basic blackjack strategy.

So some very smart people have managed to use card counting to make a lot of money. The most famous example is the blackjack team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT,) a group popularized in the bestselling book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich. The nonfiction work is the basis for "21," the new film from director Robert Luketic who has now managed to bounce back from his last picture, the atrocious "Monster-In-Law."

In "21," MIT math professor Micky Rosa (a fantastic Kevin Spacey) has recruited a group of the university's brightest to go to Vegas on the weekends to rake in the money. The five students work as a team of supposed strangers. The con - if that's really the appropriate word - works like this: the team is primarily split between those who watch the table, keeping a count on the cards, and those who swoop in when the table is "hot" and place the big bets.

The film's protagonist is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess of "Across the Universe,") a brilliant MIT student with one small problem: he doesn't have the $300,000 he needs for Harvard. He also doesn't have the life experience needed to "dazzle" the people who would decide if he deserves a full ride scholarship. And so when his genius attracts Professor Rosa's attention, the possibility to make the money he needs is very attractive, as is the chance for a more glamorous life. His world is pretty limited to working for $8 an hour, his geeky friends, and endless studying. Vegas night clubs, hotel suites, and attractive teammate Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) are a bit more engaging.

It's not all champagne, though. Getting involved with Rosa is really like dealing with the devil. The prof has a dark, sinister side toward those who cross him. There's also Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne,) a thug working for the casinos who works to spot and then intimidate card counters. He's always lurking in the background, all set to pound the snot out of some brainy MIT student.

It should be obvious by the subjects discussed where the film's strengths lie. The idea of the film is engaging and compelling, unfortunately it's all gone through the Hollywood screenplay machine, emerging wrapped in conventions and clichés. It's the same story of the wholesome innocent who is tempted to use his talents in a corrupt way in a dangerous world and who must redeem himself. It's a protagonist who develops a secret and abandons his true friends in favor of the fast life of sex and money. It's even got the generic romance that is never really explained and fails to make any sense. Perhaps most disappointing is that the characters are never really fleshed out enough.

All that's OK, though. A film can be both formulaic and entertaining. And as long as we're being entertained then it's forgivable for a film to take a few short cuts. It is an exciting picture whose successes far exceed its shortcomings. Really the only significant weakness is the screenplay. The direction is flashy and appropriate to the setting. The performances are also a lot of fun, especially Spacey and Fishburne.

"21" really is much better than it looks. It had the potential for mediocrity stamped all over it and yet it emerged as a nice surprise.

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