Inspired by the true story of MIT students who mastered the art of card counting and took Vegas casinos for millions in winnings. Looking for a way to pay for tuition, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) finds himself quietly recruited by MIT's most gifted students in a daring plot to break Vegas. With the help of a brilliant statistics professor (Kevin Spacey) and armed with fake IDs, intelligence and a complicated system of counting cards, Ben and his friends succeed in breaking the impenetrable casinos. Now, his challenge is keeping the numbers straight and staying one step ahead of the casinos before it all spirals out of control.
An unconvincing exercise in moral complexity, 21 is based on Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays brilliant, blue-collar scholar Ben Campbell, whose doubts that he'll win a scholarship to Harvard Medical School compel him to join a secret, M.I.T. gang of math whiz kids. Under the silky but chilling command of a math professor (Kevin Spacey), Jim and the others master card counting, i.e., the statistical analysis of cards dealt in blackjack games. The team lives a humdrum existence during the week, but on weekends in Sin City, the students are rolling in cash, going to exclusive clubs, and feeling on top of the world. (Ben even gets the girl: a comely, fellow counter played by Kate Bosworth.) Despite all that success, Ben feels ethically compromised, and indeed director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), in the old tradition of American movies, plays it both ways where fun vices are concerned. On the one hand, it feels so good; on the other, ahem, we know it's wrong. That studied ambivalence proves wearing after a while, making the most interesting character in the film a casino watchdog played by Laurence Fishburne. A master at reading the emotions of gamblers beating the house with a scam, he's admirable for being good at his job, but repellent for wrecking the faces of counters in casino dungeons. He's all about moral complexity in the tradition of anti-heroes, and a truly provocative element in an otherwise superficial movie. --Tom Keogh
Stills from 21 (click for larger image)