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The heist film. Moviegoers have had a mad love affair with films that depict robbing from the rich to give to ... whoever the hero may be: John “The Cat” Robie, Mr. White, Butch Cassidy and/or the Sundance Kid, Henry Holland, Bonnie and Clyde, Gondorf and Hooker, and so forth. Recently the prospects of Danny Ocean made over from a 1960’s Sinatra model to a George Clooney replacement in 2001 have caught the imagination of movie audiences. The slick, sexy trio of caper films brought a freewheeling fun and glamour to the screen and seemed to be most at home when set amidst the glitz and glare of Las Vegas neon.

21 is a heist film of a slightly different stripe, there are no vaults being broken into, but money changes hands in less-than-upstanding ways. Like Ocean’s 11, the action is set in the heart of the Vegas strip, but the setup takes place far away in the classrooms of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT for those with less time. Ben Campbell is

a hard-working middle-class boy with a head full of smarts and yen to get into Harvard Medical. Ben’s trouble is that the tuition for Harvard medical is an astronomical sum and decades of working at his 8-dollar-an-hour job at the local haberdashery won’t spot him that kind of dough. Still, Ben is noticeably bright, so much so that a math professor Micky Rosa, takes Ben into his confidence and introduces him to a college club not offered on any university brochure. Professor Rosa has accumulated the sharpest minds in the school for some lucrative field trips. Spotting cash for plane fare and hotel, Professor Rosa herds his bright young things into the fields of the Vegas Strip for a practical math lesson. The students count cards, making the quickest minds infallible at the game of Blackjack, or “21” (- aha!). The students go out as a team, and by use of hidden gestures and secret buzzwords help each other to vulgar scads of dosh every weekend. Any residual hangovers or lack of presence in other classes is also fixed by the helpful Professor Rosa. Ben, being a good boy, hedges for a good minute before his Achilles Heel is hit in the form of lovely classmate, Jill Taylor, who is one of Rosa’s Angels and breathily convinces Ben to come along. Ben shines in their initial outings, raking in bushels of cabbage for the entire group to share (- minus the 50% in the Professor’s pocket) and the team is in their glory. Harvard suddenly doesn’t look so far away as Ben piles wads of cash in the hollow ceiling boards of his dorm (- ?!). After a rocky start (- and a few tailored Italian suits), things get chugging between himself and Jill. Ben even abandons his old bike for a car and driver. That’s not the only thing he sets on the curb, Ben leaves in the dust of his old poverty his old MIT geekmates. The field trips to Vegas and nuzzling Jill have taken up his time and it causes resentment with his old pals who know nothing about his double life as a cardsharp. Ben also has to deal with the resentment of a fellow teammate who is jealous of Ben’s proficiency and somehow can’t be consoled with all the money he’s now making because of his rival. Add to all this a crafty casino security man who catches on to the little team despite their disguises and a betrayal at the lowest level, and Ben’s life becomes all sorts of complicated.

21 plays very much like a sort of Ocean’s 11 for the teenybop set. While the explanation of the actual card counting crossed my eyes (- even as a young pachyderm math was always my worst subject), it really didn’t matter because all you were really supposed to see was the adorable, sweet Ben and his sexy slide from poor-but-honest hardworking guy to debauched, avaricious cheater. It’s not that big a slide, really - the most sordid the team gets is going en masse to a strip club where the dancers keep their clothes on - and one can’t blame Ben for enjoying the fruits of his brainy labours. It’s all pretty fluffy and innocent and the changes in Ben are barely cosmetic, so there’s no big lesson here – except maybe to run much faster when you see security coming.

Jim Sturgess is very winning as Ben (- NPI, I think). He has the fresh-faced quality of innocence that makes the prospect of luring his character into temptation so much fun. He handles the training scenes with lighting fast equations flying at his head with believable aplomb. He is utterly endearing in his scenes with the much faster article, Jill. Ben is out of his league and he knows it, but he’s hanging in there and can’t help but win the girl. It also helps that Sturgess doesn’t look too shabby in those suits, either. Another thing Sturgess manages really well is not getting blown away off the screen by Kevin Spacey as Professor Rosa. I loved watching Spacey finally back on screen in a role that befits his amazing timing and droll delivery. When he disappears for almost a third of the film, the movie suffers and rises back to form when he reappears as a Village Person … or a cowboy, I’m not sure. When Rosa sends a student to bring Ben down into the basement classroom where the blackjack team meets he’s led down the darkened hallways like Alice down the rabbit hole, or like Neo in the early scenes of The Matrix. So nice then to see Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne turn up as the wily security strong-arm who gives Ben intimate close-ups of his beautiful rings then realises the college student might lead him to a bigger fish that got away.

21 is too long by a good 10 minutes, and certainly didn’t need its abundance of endings. It was like Return of the King - when you think it’s over, it keeps going another way. Pick one and be happy, Robert Luketic, you’re the director. The uneven pacing between the scenes featuring the fast camera cuts of Vegas and drone of post-field-trip Boston didn’t help. I get it - his friends are mad, okay, he can buy new ones! The holes in the story are also a bit hard to take: Ever hear of a bank account, smart boy? Money in the ceiling …pshaw, that’s what coffee cans are for! And when exactly does this movie take place, there are all sorts of discordant clues about the time period from security technology to fashion. While it’s a nice sentiment, I didn’t buy the big romance between Jill and Ben. Was it Kate Bosworth leaving me cold, or was it that she only seemed convincing when she was saying no? For Jill to inexplicably accept Ben after soundly  rejecting him moments earlier seemed off and terribly formulaic (- maybe he did the Bend and Snap in one of 21’s many La Vida Loca Las Vegas montages and I missed it), but I guess it’s meant to give the swooners in the audience some PG-rated thrills.

The good news is that 21’s sins are certainly forgivable and buoyed by the charming Jim Sturgess, abetted by Messrs. Spacey and Fishburne (- Why couldn’t they have had more scenes together?), it’s far from the worst time at the movies one could have. There are some smart moments with a nice, clever twist or two. The rest of the blackjack team is cute and engaging, reeling off some good lines. The cast seems to be having real fun and there’s no reason, despite a few lags and holes that the audience shouldn’t either.

 

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

March 23rd, 2008

 

PS: Click here to read our interview with 21's star, the charming Jim Sturgess, featuring our exclusive photos.

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Sony Pictures)