In the beginning of “21,” the latest film from director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”), there is a forced, unconvincing narration with terrible computer-generated cards flying around a table. The narrator is the film’s protagonist, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), who’s reminding viewers that card counting is not illegal. After watching the film, I asked myself two questions: Why does Vegas care so much about card counting and how can making a boring, melodrama like “21” not be illegal?
Very loosely based on real events, “21” is the story of Campbell, an exceptionally intelligent student about to complete his degree at MIT. He wants nothing more in the world than to go onto Harvard Medical School, but it costs $300,000, and Campbell just doesn’t have that kind of money. One night, while studying for one of his classes, he’s asked by a fellow classmate to attend a meeting. The meeting is a small, secret club composed of fellow students and professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Their goal is to learn to count cards, and on weekends fly to Vegas to make hundreds of thousands of dollars playing blackjack. After some initial hesitation, Campbell realizes it would be the perfect way to earn some money, and agrees to join the team. However, there are some who frown upon card counting, like aging loss prevention specialist Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who starts catching onto the team’s tricks, and vows to put an end to their scheme.
For a story based on so much real drama, “21” felt forced. There were plenty of unbelievable moments, added only for the sake of conflict. The melodrama became so heavy-handed and cheesy that I could hardly keep my eyes on the screen. Jealousy, betrayal and sexual frustration make up most of the movie’s central conflicts. On top of that, I never found the film engaging. All I could think about was the entertaining real-life story shown on A&E, and how boring this dramatization was.
There was controversy before the film’s release about the studio changing the characters too much from their real-life counterparts. And if these characters are Hollywood’s versions of the real people, those MIT guys must have had the personalities of an ironing board. It’s been a long time since such a boring pairing of protagonist and antagonist has come along. I could never sympathize with Campbell. He’s a smart guy with a bright future who makes a lot of money and has a hot girlfriend. And any movie that makes Kevin Spacey boring is doing something seriously wrong. I would love to know what was going through his mind when he agreed to take this role. Even Fishburne was boring and monotonous.
And if that weren’t enough, “21” looked as if it were shot by the film crew that makes all those terrible Lifetime movies and edited by some guy who works for “Days of Our Lives.” This movie was bland and uninspired from cliché start to predictable finish. Luketic wasn’t willing to take any chances with the cinematography or editing, a shame considering the visual appeal of Vegas. In the end, Luketic made Vegas seem slow and boring.
When I go to see a film in theaters, I expect a certain level of quality. Just like when I get stuck watching a made-for-television movie with my girlfriend’s mom, I expect a certain lack of quality. “21” feels like one of those, and I wouldn’t go any further out of my way to see this.