For a decade during the eighties / early nineties a group of college students originated a daring and successful scam. Using a technique called “Counting cards” they managed to take weekend trips to Vegas, playing the tables and scamming the Casinos out of serious money. A book “Bringing Down the House” was written about the escapade, and now courtesy of producer Kevin Spacey, the real-life events come to your hi def home movie screen. Of course, in its transition to the world of Hollywood many liberties have been taken with the original story - but as a film does it grip the viewer in a way that a book might struggle to do?
The story opens as young Ben (Jim Sturgess) is attempting to grab a scholarship into Harvard. He is sailing through M.I.T with top A grades all the way, whilst also helping his two best friends in a robotics competition. Unfortunately, he is up against other similar high calibre students, and he is told that he just doesn't DAZZLE the panel in the way that some others have done. He is told to go away and write an essay which has the required pizaaz to wow the panel.
Our Ben, however, is a bit of a shrinking violet - and he just doesn't have the character to push himself forward for the scholarship that he needs as he can't afford the tuition. He sinks back into a life of unexceptional exceptionality at MIT, until one day he manages to attract the attention of Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) during one of the latter's lectures. Debating a technical Mathematical problem with Rosa, Sturgess manages to win at a mathematical game involving a gamble and before he knows it Rosa has integrated him into a card counting school. Initially sceptical, Ben realises that joining the group is the only chance he has to fulfil his academic potential and he is trained up by them before hitting Vegas.
Once there, things quickly go very well and the group find themselves more successful than they have ever been before. Unfortunately, though, the more success they get the more fractured they become. Ben finds himself being taken over by a character that he is essentially playing whilst in Vegas and everything begins to change.....
Although it is based on a true story, really this film only takes the central conceit from the book, and runs in a completely different direction from it. The director is interested in making card playing sexy and exciting, and a plot is woven around the Blackjack that is designed to keep the interest of the viewer sustained throughout the 2hr+ running time. To achieve this, it is essential that the cast is up to the job.
Spacey, of course, needs absolutely no introduction from me - and as always he is outstanding here. It doesn't matter whether he is playing in a serious drama, or a fluffy thriller like this - he still manages to inject any film he appears in with a performance that raises it above the norm. And he does this in spades here. Initially a father figure to the group, he very quickly turns - becoming a kind of svengali bully, alternatively massaging egos and flying into manipulative turns of behaviour. At no point does his performance go over the top, and he can seem totally menacing just with a simple glance and a lack of histrionics.
Up against this superb performance is Jim Sturgess, previously seen in Across the Universe and the rather less successful The Other Boleyn Girl. In the former he should great potential, which was promptly deflated violently in his awful second outing. Here, though, up against the performance of Spacey he manages to more than hold his own with a character who is arguably more difficult to play than any other in the movie. Ben goes through quite a character arc in this film, from naïve college boy, through Vegas major player, and subsequently to even darker places that I cannot mention here for fear of spoiling the plot for anyone who hasn't seen it. At all points, the transitions are totally believable, and Sturgess sells the character perfectly. At the end of the film, when we have gone full circle and he is sitting in the same chair he was right at the beginning of the film - we are not watching the same character. He has gone through so much and Sturgess brings this to vivid life. Here, he has confirmed the great potential he showed in Julie Taymor's musical - and I look forward to what he does next.
Against these two promising performances, there are also some stellar backing from a diverse supporting cast. Laurence Fishburne provides his usual solid performance as a security guard on the brink of obsolescence due to modern technology. He is obsessed with the human touch, although this can sometimes be confused in his own mind with brutality and force. He essays this dichotomy extremely well.
The supporting cast playing the other groups of students may be your usual good looking bunch but they also do extremely well with their roles, never coming across as anything other than realistic characters rather than just ciphers for the writer. Bosworth, of course, has rather more to do that the others in the group, but the chemistry between her and Sturgess seems very real and manages to hold the story together well.
The direction is similarly solid and competent. The scenes set in the stone walls of University life are filmed in a very sober way. The colour palette is deliberately subdued, and the architecture and landscapes are really given time to breathe. Camera moves are languid and considered, and the atmosphere of learning is well portrayed. Cleverly contrasted with this are the scenes shot in Vegas. Here the whole film takes on a more dynamic feel. The camera moves are flashy, full of motion contrast and jump cuts. Sped up film is intermixed with bright vibrant colours to really convey the chaos and garish beauty of the city. This whole contrast is beautifully presented by the director and it must have been some challenge to mix styles so well and seamlessly.
Yet character is not allowed to suffer. The director knows when to give an actor his reign, and some of the scenes involving the whole group are brilliantly mounted. The whole sense is of a very slick film with a lot going on under the bonnet.
And this is the area where, if anywhere, the film falls down. We are presented with an extremely well made thriller, but it never seems to be interested in examining the more detailed character motivations that exist. Ben changes a lot during the film, but we are never really allowed to study this. We know why he has changed, of course, but we never get a true sense of how it affects him and his self-image. Does he ever feel any sense of remorse and regret for what he has become? We just never know. Likewise, there seems to be no real depth to Mickey's character. Is he really as one dimensional as he seems? Does he ever feel any kind of regret for what he is manipulating his students to do? The film just never seems to have any interest in this. Of course, there is a lot of plot here (the film lasts over two hours) so it may be that the filmmakers made a conscious decision to just concentrate on the story. This is not necessarily to the film's detriment. It is just sometimes it would be nice to go a little deeper into the character's motivations.
In addition to this, there are some glaring plot contrivances that really make you wince. Admittedly these aren't the kind that leap out at you on first viewing, but if you do any kind of thinking about the film after you have watched it then you are going to notice them and they will be there every time you subsequently watch the film.
However, despite these niggles, I still thoroughly enjoyed 21 I found it to be an extremely entertaining thriller which was extremely well presented, directed, written, and performed. It was a surprise box office hit, and had legs at the cinema. This was a film that profited from good word of mouth, and it is not hard to see why. If you have any interest at all in well made, well acted, glossy thrillers then you really have to give this a go. You will most certainly not be disappointed.