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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 


Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a shy, brilliant M.I.T. student who - needing to pay his way through Harvard Med school - finds the answer in blackjack. He is recruited to join a group of the school's most gifted students that heads to Vegas every weekend armed with fake identities and the know-how to turn the odds in their favour. With unorthodox math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) leading the way, they've cracked the code. By counting cards and employing an intricate system of signals, the team can beat the odds. Seduced by the money, the Vegas lifestyle, and by his smart and sexy teammate, Jil Taylor (Kate Bosworth), Ben begins to push the limits. Though counting cards isn't illegal, the stakes are high, and the challenge becomes not only keeping the numbers straight, but staying one step ahead of the casinos' menacing enforcer: Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
No wonder the Las Vegas casinos were happy to let the filmmakers use their venues to film them being milked; it makes it look so easy that you can just about see the cinemas emptying as the planes to Las Vegas fill up with hopefuls. It's another useful reminder that reality usually ends once you're inside the cinema. But that's why Aussie director Robert Luketic will forever be celebrated as a director who steered a movie to No 1 at the US box office (as did Tropfest founder John Polson with Swimfan, in September 2002).

It's a great fantasy story propelled by the fact that it's based on fact. A small group of clever uni students team up under their maths professor and invade Vegas to milk the blackjack tables by counting cards, a demanding but effective way of keeping ahead of the odds that always favour the house. Wouldn't we like to be in their shoes? Wouldn't we just!

Kevin Spacey has a showy role which he relishes, Laurence Fishburn burns darkly as a casino's 'loss prevention' heavy and Josh Gad is a standout as Ben's best friend Miles.

The screenplay, adapted from the book by one of the students who took part in the original adventure, a little studied and sometimes not explicit enough about the system, is nonetheless well handled by Luketic as the team goes through its carefully planned raid on the casinos. Much is made of the fact that Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) only reluctantly goes along with the team and only to make enough to pay his Harvard Medical School fees of some $300,000. His mum's savings of $68,000 seems paltry by comparison to what he can make at the tables ....

The film has a feisty sense of fun as well as a darker underbelly and the performances are great. Like all good Hollywood movies, our hero has friends he has to let down and a conscience he has to grapple with, and the moral issues about gambling are consumed by other moral issues. Entertaining - I bet you'll enjoy it.

Review by Louise Keller:
Everybody likes stories about winning, and Robert Luketic's follow-up to Monster-in-Law is just that. Based on a true story of M.I.T. students who hit Vegas in the 90s with a winning formula, 21 takes us along for the entire ride. There's the anticipation, the thrill, the despair.... the how, the why and the wherefore. But winning needs more than a winning hand, as Jim Sturgess' hard-working student Ben discovers when his logical mind and natural mathematical ability open doors that lead him into a life style he could never have dreamed of. We are dazzled by the story, and while the execution is enjoyable, the screenplay allows the grip on our commitment to the characters to wane.

Just like Matt Damon's Good Will Hunting, Sturgess' Ben has an aptitude for numbers. The $300,000 he needs to study at Harvard Medical School seems like an impossible dream and which his part-time job at a men's wear store will definitely not finance. British actor Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) is well cast as the shy, conscientious Ben, who hangs out with geek inventors before Kevin Spacey's maths professor seduces him with the promise of not only more money than he ever dreamed of, but the glitz of Vegas, where he can become anyone he wants. Soon Ben is leading a double life studying in Boston during the week and kicking up his heels under an assumed identity in the neon-lit gambling capital of the world. Spacey is terrific as the wheeler-dealer professor who runs his system like a business, while Kate Bosworth is likeable as the girl Ben finds irresistible. Laurence Fishburne's casino consultant with an eye for impropriety brings true grit to the table.

The first hour is by far the best, when Ben changes worlds and acquires the confidence of a winner. The trouble is, when he starts winning, he starts to behave in a way we do not believe. There's also a jump in time which takes us out of the story. Other implausibilities include Ben stuffing thousands of dollars in the ceiling and behaving uncharacteristically to his best friends. This aside, 21 is a fast-paced tale that makes winning look not only easy, but a lot of fun. Egos are shaken, friendships tested and a couple of double crosses never let us forget to use everything within reach to maximise that winning hand.

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21 (M)
(US, 2008)

CAST: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Spacey, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari

PRODUCER: Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey, Michael De Luca

DIRECTOR: Robert Luketic

SCRIPT: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb (book Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Russell Carpenter

EDITOR: Elliot Graham

MUSIC: David Sardy


RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes



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