As someone who goes to Las Vegas every year for ShoWest and never so much as drops one coin in the slot machines, I couldn’t begin to give you a lucid explanation of the card-counting scheme at the core of 21, the movie inspired by the true story of M.I.T. students who took away millions from the blackjack tables in Sin City. But even gambling novices won’t be counting the minutes as this fast-paced, slickly entertaining tale of technically legal collegiate misadventures unspools.
Brit Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays Ben Campbell, a math prodigy who dreams of going to Harvard Medical School after completing his studies at M.I.T. But tuition at Harvard is $300,000, an amount Ben isn’t about to save from his job at a men’s clothing store. Ben’s talents earn the attention of his brash and brainy math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who recruits him for an exclusive extracurricular club he’s formed: superior math students who jaunt off to Vegas each weekend for some very lucrative casino action. Under Micky’s tutelage, the group has mastered the art of tallying the cards at blackjack and using a system of signals to hone in on a “hot” table and get out with a huge payoff before the casino authorities swoop down.
At first resistant, socially awkward Ben blossoms in his new sideline, which also gives him a chance to get closer to campus hottie Jill (Kate Bosworth). Seduced by the Vegas high life and all that ready cash, he also acquires an overconfidence that eventually leads to a rift with Micky and some foolish risks that catch the eagle eye of casino enforcer Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
The screenplay by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, follows all the predictable beats: the cautionary lesson of youthful hubris; the not-surprising revelation that Micky is a leader who shouldn’t be crossed (or trusted); the third-act twists and reversals. The character of Ben, in particular, hews to a formulaic through-line, but Sturgess (managing a fairly convincing American accent) is such a likeable screen presence, the audience stays on his side even after he gets consumed by the fever of his heady new pursuit.
Spacey has played characters like the shady professor before, but no one does glib arrogance better; you believe Micky is as brilliant as he says he is, and Spacey (also a producer, naturally) brings his patented electricity to the showy role. 21 also provides some good moments for Fishburne, seething with righteous anger and frustration as the fierce casino protector. Bosworth is mainly eye candy here, but she and fellow actors Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts make a lively crew of collegiate cons.
What truly pulls it all together is the kinetic direction of Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), who makes vivid use of actual Las Vegas casino locations like Red Rock and Planet Hollywood, constantly moving his camera and using bold visual effects to make something as essentially uncinematic as blackjack seem as exciting as the latest videogame. Like gaudy Vegas itself, there’s less here than meets the eye, but the show is bright and brisk enough that audiences will likely be happy they took the gamble.