Andy Bockelman: Smart, fast-paced '21' is a winning hand


— Millions of people flock to the desert paradise of Las Vegas every year to empty their pockets in a fleeting attempt to win big. These people are gambling. An elite few gamers head to Sin City to do something entirely different: count.

By utilizing simple math, the characters of "21" upset the balance of power between players and the omnipotent house.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is the pride of MIT with a 4.0 GPA, phenomenal test scores and a glowing rapport with the school's faculty. Unfortunately, dozens of his fellow students boast the same profile and are competing for the same scholarship that he desperately needs to pay for Harvard medical school.

Unsure of how to make sure he will attend Harvard the following year, he happens upon an extracurricular activity that will do just that. His non-linear equations professor (Kevin Spacey) has taken notice of his mathematical prowess and approaches him to join his card counting team; the group goes to Las Vegas every weekend to dominate the casinos' blackjack tables.

Overly sensible Ben is wary of getting involved, but with a little coaxing from a member of the team (Kate Bosworth), he joins, immediately becoming a whiz at the process. He starts to drink deep from the cup of life, getting addicted to the Vegas backdrop and winning hundreds of thousands of dollars all the while.

However, his luck may have run out when his personal relationships suffer and emotions start to run high amongst the team.

Plus, the Eye in the Sky does not lie, and a loss prevention expert (Laurence Fishburne) has targeted Ben as public enemy number one.

Sturgess possesses a model façade for a card counter, but even while not performing rapid calculations, Ben has some personality as well. As Mickey Rosa, Spacey is at his snide best, abusing his professorial power to get what he wants. Bosworth, in yet another film with Spacey, is passable as seductive Jill Taylor, who has been a blackjack aficionado since the age of nine.

The rest of the team is alright too, from spotters Kianna (Liza Lapira) and sticky-fingered Choi (Aaron Yoo) to Ben's fellow big player Fisher (Jacob Pitts) whose arrogance spells disaster for his comrades. Fishburne contends perfectly with all of them as hard-nosed Cole Williams, an old-school security agent who is quite adept at counting in his own right.

The celluloid version of the reality-based book "Bringing Down the House" plays up the highlights of the Vegas spread, with extensive filming at venues such as Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino among others.

Nevertheless, the movie is remarkably grounded. Even as Ben lives the suite life weekend after weekend, he works hard not to forget his goal of raising money for school. Ironically, his responsibility and dedication to academia is what has put him in a predicament of having no life experience to draw upon for his scholarship application. Like its central character, the film becomes increasingly less cerebral and more indulgent, but this balance of logic and merriment is the best way to approach the Strip and everything related to it.

Besides spreading the word that card counting is perfectly legal, "21" is a smart, fast-paced look at the tantalizing world-within-itself of Las Vegas and a selection of contenders who can beat the odds with a little know-how.

So, take a seat and hit it, because this table is hot.


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