Monday, April 7, 2008

'21' falls short of winning hand

** out of ****

"21's" winning slogan, "winner, winner, chicken dinner," is quoted quite often, but the movie is more of a turkey. The newest card playing movie since last year's Drew Barrymore-Eric Bana flop "Lucky You," "21" is definitely more entertaining, but still goes bust.

From across the pond, "Across the Universe" and "The Other Boleyn Girl" star Jim Sturgess puts on his best American accent as the film's lead, Ben Campbell. Ben is an Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who can do math faster than a calculator. He's in desperate need of a scholarship or $300,000 to achieve his dream of attending Harvard Medical School. Opportunity knocks on his door when his math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) offers him a place on the school's secret card counting team, the "MIT Blackjack Club."

Ben reluctantly takes Rosa up on his offer, realizing his financial woes and the persuasion from seductive Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), his campus crush. The condition that he imposes upon himself is playing only until he can win enough money for Harvard -- "a means to an end."

Jetting back and forth from chilly Boston to glossy Las Vegas on the weekends, the team counts their cards and then their chips, raking in the dough.

As they change their names and wear disguises to masquerade their identities, their days become numbered with increasing security technology. The day arrives sooner than expected as the casinos see that their profits are slipping and vigilant security pro Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) starts to unearth Micky's elaborate system.

For blackjack novices, don't fear, the movie gives a brief tutorial on how the game works, as well as the intriguing team's hand gestures, body movements and word signals to indicate if a table is "hot," "cold" and other player codes.

"21" has exciting blackjack table scenes, though away from Las Vegas' glitter the film is stale. "21" does manage to be rousing enough to follow through, even at its most tedious points. Screenwriters Peter Steinfeld ("Be Cool," "Analyze That") and Allan Loeb ("Things We Lost in the Fire") capture the excitement of the game, but provide a failing hand with the rest of the story.

The ending is a slight disappointment. As the film progresses, the story becomes too unrealistic, which is funny, since the movie is loosely based on the true story of the real MIT Blackjack Team and adapted from the book "Bringing Down the House," written by Ben Mezrich.

Director Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde," "Monster-in-Law") certainly has some style with fascinating aerial shots of Vegas and the fast-editing on the casino floors, but it's Something we've seen already in the superior "Ocean's 11."

Jim Sturgess does a fair job as Ben, but seems somewhat miscast. Kevin Spacey tries his best with the role, but gives up along the way becoming over-the-top without much depth. The same goes for Fishburne. The average Bosworth surprisingly works well in the role of Ben's love interest. Aaron Yoo ("Disturbia") and Liza Lapira ("Cloverfield") are affable as fellow teammates Choi and Kianna.

With a great concept, "21" folds on quality story telling. Not worth the gamble to see in the theaters, "21's" good enough to ante up $3 for a rental.

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