Director: Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne
UK Release date: 11 April 2008
Certificate: 12A (123 mins)
The game 21, or ‘vingt-et-un’ as it was known in my misspent youth, is also called Blackjack, though card experts will know that Black Jack (sic) is a completely different game. ‘Winner, winner, chicken dinner’ is the bingo-like phrase to greet a wining score of 21 by either the dealer or the player. Anyway, this is the game that is meant to be the vehicle that will help young Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess) into making the transition from MIT in Boston to Harvard Medical School by paying his fees. The only other possibility is the vague chance of winning a scholarship to the famous school by wowing the examiners with a tale of significant life experience that ‘jumps off the page’ in its difference from all the other applicants. Poor Ben admits to no life experience worth telling and his good friends are nerds who can only gawp at the unobtainable opposite sex. Things are about to change for young Ben, though, through the sponsorship of his manipulative professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), and a life experience shows up in the attractive form of Jill (Kate Bosworth). Kevin Spacey has lost none of the unpleasant devious characteristics that his roles often manifest.
The film progresses in the pattern of a fairly light-hearted morality tale; the gradual loss of innocence, which comes with the demons of gambling and the shapely Jill. The comments ‘there’s more to life than money’ and ‘your father would be proud of you’ change to ‘you will feel the thrill of making more money that you can possibly imagine’ and ‘you can become anyone you want’! The Professor completes his student card-counting team with his brilliant new find, Ben. The prestige of MIT and Harvard are exchanged at weekends for the fleshpots of Las Vegas and its casinos. Cash is stashed away first in his underpants and then in his college apartment. The way to the future!
The lure into this new world of making money in the team, whose sensible motto is ‘don’t get caught counting’, makes for an intriguing start to the film with the nerdish friends of Ben contrasting with the hip, young card-counting gang. But the demise of the Vegas parties is inevitable and not just a little drawn out. Card-counting is not illegal but the casino heavies in the shape of characters like Laurence Fishburn’s Cole Williams have their own way of making sure losses are painful if not paid for. The fall from grace is well flagged up by Ben’s growing lies about his life, his not being able to tell anyone his true situation, the rivalry in the team and his eventual betrayal of old friends. The only way back is for some rebuilding of trust and reconciliation.
I’m not sure if the last part of the movie, the ‘sting’, is part of the true story this film is based on or not. It certainly isn’t convincing as the finale of a morality tale, however light. As an entertaining conclusion, it definitely has a certain slickness! Ben has got enough of ‘a life’ to stun the Harvard examiner. The fleshpots of Vegas get to be integrated with a viable future and most of the characters, except perhaps Micky, live happily ever after and not a moment too soon. Even the casino heavy gets a decent retirement in a comic rereading of his character!
No doubt we will see a lot more of Jim Sturgess who does well to bridge the age range from college boy to a character that at times looks a little bit like a young De Niro. He will need weightier material than this to follow in the shoes of the ‘Raging Bull’, but you have to start somewhere.