In much the same way that moviegoers like seeing bad guys beaten, and evil corporations defeated, casinos are there to be broken. As the ongoing success of the Ocean's franchise proved, we like seeing these soulless money-sucking places emptied by canny means. While the Ocean's team have utilised virtually every technology known to man in their three movies — from believable fake dice to the unbelievable Channel Tunnel — 21 goes old school. Via grad school. It's the based-on-a-true-story tale of six MIT students who developed a card-counting technique and took Vegas for millions.
To make it slightly more exciting — because apparently students taking down casinos isn't exciting enough — Luketic's film weaves a standard story around the facts. Ben (Sturgess) is a shy, nerdy kid who's struggling to meet his tuition fees. His maths professor, Micky Rosa (Spacey), spots Ben's mental agility and brings him into his select group of briliant young minds, assembled for one reason only: to make millions of dollars at the Black Jack tables of Vegas. In the process of becoming a gambling genius, Ben becomes seduced by the money, the lifestyle and his team mate Jill (Bosworth) at the expense of his old friends and former geeky projects.As you may have guessed by now, originality is not 21's strong suit. For the most part, it doesn't matter: Sturgess is a likeable lead, Bosworth is cute and the ever-watchable Spacey revels in this sort of good teacher / bad teacher part. However, the structure of the film leaves a lot to be desired. In addition to Ben's predictable character arc, 21 feels like a great 90 minute film buried in an additional 33 minutes of flab. The tension, aside from the brief excitement of Ben facing Rosa's wrath for trying to leave the group, comes from Cole Williams (Fishburne), the casino security man who's been pursuing the group during their spree. Luketic though doesn't bring the group into contact with Williams until the final half hour, instead padding proceedings with a glossy middle hour of the gang hitting Vegas, drinking, gambling and having an MTV good time. It's a slick, enjoyable watch but it serves no purpose and ultimately undermines the entire film. A decent opening, a decent climax: a shame then that they're kept so far apart.
EXTRAS *** An audio commentary with director Luketic, along with producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, plus three featurettes: The Advantage Player; Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal; and Money Plays: A Tour of The Good Life.