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September 14, 2013

21 (2008)
Director: Robert Luketic
Actors: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth


Synopsis: MIT student Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), is recruited by one his professors to join the school’s secretive, crack blackjack team. He quickly realises he has a gift for counting cards, and will be able to accrue enough money to pay his Harvard Med School fees, but the hubris acquired through his Vegas successes threatens to ruin all his plans.

Review: Even allowing for the fact that 21 is ostensibly based on a true story, it’s still been utterly Hollywoodised to death here, with barely a movie cliché left untapped by the director and screenwriters. You could even showcase the film as an exemplar of the perils of following the McKee three act structure (the 2 plot reversals are so clear-cut), and, more explicitly, the rise-fall-rise trajectory of so much commercial cinema is woven neatly into 21′s story of a humble boy genius from Boston, who gets more than he bargained for when invited into the world of blackjack and weekly visits to the sleekest of Vegas hotels.

Even the treatment of Vegas is perfunctory. The shots of Jim Sturgess poking his wide-eyed, callow gaze out of the limo on his first visit is indicative of the film’s one-dimensionality in conceiving of ‘Sin City’ as superficially glitzy and alluring, but with its infamous seedy and corruptive underbelly there too. In fact, Sturgess’ portrayal of Ben in the first-half of the movie is a tad hackneyed, with his constant bumbling around and stuttering suggesting he could have been auditioning for the latest incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

If one accepts 21‘s conveyor-belt conventionality, then there is some pleasure to be gained from its prototypical machinations. It has a fablistic quality not too dissimilar from that other story of an unlikely Boston wunderkind, Good Will Hunting, and Kevin Spacey nicely mines the urbane, middle-aged menace he perfected so memorably in the recent Netflix series House of Cards. Even Kate Bosworth does a great job – saddled with one of the tokenistic, marginalised women in the narrative (of course, they could never be major players in the blackjack team in their own right, surely?!), she successfully transcends the cipher-like trappings of her blonde-interest character to create a genuinely memorable characterisation. (September 2013)

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