The dangerous world of gambling is the setting for Robert Luketic’s drama. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and earns the chance of a place at Harvard Medical School but cannot afford the $300,000 fee. His scores are great but there is competition for a Robinson Scholarship that would cover the fees for all of his schooling. Meeting with the director, Ben is told an individual with the best story will get the place. What does Ben have to offer in terms of life experience? Well, quite a lot as it turns out.
At MIT Ben wins the admiration of professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who invites him to join his blackjack team, a select group of students that head to Las Vegas at weekends and win big money. The group is made up of Choi (Aaron Yoo), Fisher (Jacob Pitts), Jill (Kate Bosworth), and Kianna (Liza Lapira). Ben initially refuses to join the team but Jill persuades him and given Ben’s attraction towards her he is soon heading for Las Vegas, but only long enough to earn the fees for Harvard. Micky divides his team up having one group hit the casino tables and play minimum bets, signalling for the best tables. It is at this point that the rest of the team step in and bet big money. The team use a system of card counting and Ben is soon astonished how easy it is to win big. However, his skill at the game incites the jealousy of Fisher and for every trip they make to Vegas the more the harmony of the group is threatened. The presence of the vigilant security chief Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) also puts the group in the spotlight. Can Ben earn enough for Harvard? Can he stop gambling? Will he and Rosa end up together?
The tense world of gambling is conveyed well here with Ben having to play high stakes at the casino tables but his ultra quick mind and excellent memory see him become the rising star in the group. Inevitably, the wheels begin to come off the venture and Ben soon finds himself alone with the stakes stacked heavily against him. Sturgess is good in the lead and the rest of the blackjack team are a varied and interesting bunch, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Fishburne does well as the menacing Williams but it is Spacey once again who effortlessly steals the film as the head of the blackjack team that sends his students into the fray but does not gamble himself for interesting reasons.
21 is a solid gambling drama about playing the system and evading the watchful eyes of the casino security. There are some good twists and turns along the way as Ben soon realises he has bitten off more than he can chew. The conclusion may be somewhat predictable but it remains a satisfying denouement and rounds off the overall narrative very well.
(Film source: reviewer’s own copy)
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