Card Counting Duplicity for Spacey & Sturgess
Winner, winner, chicken dinner! - Ben Campbell
Whilst inspired by the true story of a group of MIT students who through a clever card counting scheme made a killing at the casinos, "21"is basically a very stylized Hollywood drama which for the most is completely fictitious, with only the MIT students remaining from the true story. With it being inspired by a true story I had hopes that "21" would be a clever look at how these top mathematical students achieved such a clever scheme but what I got was a dumbed down thriller which when you remove all the flash edits and camera work is a pretty predictable story with a duplicitous twist which can be seen coming long before it arises and an uneven pacing which makes the movie slump when it should be snappy.
With the prospect of raising the $300,000 he needs to got to Harvard Medical School, M.I.T. maths genius Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is spotted by Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey - Superman Returns ) and offers him a position on his little group of geniuses who through a clever card-counting scheme make a killing at the Vegas casino's at weekends. With a need for the money Ben reluctantly joins and soon finds his weekend life style more addictive than he imagined.
"21" to its credit does start quite well with MGMT's "Time to Pretend" playing over the opening credits which grabs your attention and for the first 15 minutes or so it managed to deliver on my high expectations. The introduction to maths genius Ben, his reasoning for needing money as well as the introduction to the group of hand selected students to form the gambling team is all well worked to make you think that this is going to be a clever movie which looks at how they managed to pull of what was fundamentally card counting without being caught. But then "21" goes down hill quickly as intelligence is replaced with Hollywood glitz and subplots takeover to cover up the thin storyline.
The trouble is that to make "21" appealing to a mass market the cleverness of the scam is dumbed down so it never complicates things with the intricate mechanics. Yes we get told that numbers were changed for words and various hand signals were employed, which to be honest were far too obvious, were used to tell when a table was hot, but it never really explains the how. I can appreciate that for some delving into the mechanics of the scheme would have been too much to take in but in not doing so "21" just ends up being another glitzy movie set at the tables of the big casinos.
Giving credit where credit is due, the flashy camera techniques from the close focus on the cards being dealt to the world going past when Ben is at gambling table make for a very stylish movie and will obviously appeal to those who enjoy the "Ocean's Eleven" movies. But then this doesn't disguise the fact that the movie has very little storyline and although it attempts to deliver a cunning twist it is not exactly that cunning. It can be predicted early on in the movie and when the twist comes there is more satisfaction in guessing it than in what it gives the movie.
What also adds to the movies downfall is thanks to various sub-plots "21" often feels very uneven paced and never really manages to reach the fast paced action you would expect from a movie set in the heady world of the bright lights of a casino. A lot of these sub plots including a poorly worked romance between Ben and a fellow genius Jill as well as security expert Cole's stresses of being replaced by a computer system are never fully worked so that they end up as padding which although fills out the movie also causes it to drag.
As for the performances well Jim Sturgess actually does a good job in the main role of Ben. The characters slow development from being a shy maths geek to a confident gambler is realistic and although at times the confidences seems a little over the top Sturgess does a decent job of making you feel something for the character. Alongside Sturgess is Mr. reliable Kevin Spacey as Prof. Micky Rosa the mastermind behind all the card counting. Even in a poor role Spacey adds something interesting to a character as is the case here and manages to make Micky an intense character which makes him interesting as well as charismatic.
Besides Sturgess and Spacey the rest of the cast and characters are less memorable, mainly thanks to most of them being 2 dimensional stereotypes. Kate Bosworth as Jull struggles with an under developed character and Laurence Fishburne is purely a waste in the role of security operative Cole Williams who is basically a thug.
As for the "21" soundtrack well for the most I can't really remember much about it except for the song over the credits, MGMT's "Time to Pretend" which makes you sit up and pay attention to the movie. It's just a shame that they didn't manage to achieve the same with other songs in the movie.
What this all boils down to is that for some "21" will be an entertaining movie which appeals thanks to all the glossy stylization and close focus camera work which makes it feel a little like "Ocean's Eleven". But personally for me it was too dumbed down and never really delivered that really clever, thrilling storyline I expected. Far too much of it was predictable and thanks to the uneven pacing it was nowhere near snappy enough to keep me entertained.
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