Even though you can predict what happens, 21 is still fairly compelling for a movie about counting cards at a blackjack table.
Of course, 21 isn't just about blackjack. It's more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards, so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess, Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa's group of "gifted" students, who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle, including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth), but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently, you don't want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne), who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It's not illegal to do that, but the casinos don't much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey, what happens in Vegas oh, you know the rest.
The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess, best known for singing Beatles' songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd, whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest, but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It's not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme, but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn't nearly as effective as his love interest, but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who, oddly enough, is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions, utilizing techniques they've used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his, while Fishburne postures as he always does. It's too bad they couldn't have put in more effort.
As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e., sitting at a blackjack table), the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That's where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables, creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this, and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.