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Non-Review Review: 21

21 is a solid middle-of-the-road coming-of-age tale. It isn’t something as deep or insightful as Good Will Hunting or The Dead Poets Society, but it doesn’t aspire to be. It sets its ambitions relatively averagely: it wants to entertain and amuse rather than stimulate or provoke. Does it succeed at these somewhat modest ambitions? Somewhat.

"You know what I'm capable of... You seen se7en, right? 21 is three times se7en. You do the math."

"You know what I'm capable of... You seen se7en, right? 21 is three times se7en. You do the math."

Based on a true story, it’s interesting to see how the original story of MIT card counters has been filtered through Hollywood history. Of course the group was really composed of Asian Americans, but – since apparently the studios believe that would alienate their audience – only two team members are Asian. One without a personality (her use of slots machine is the closest we get) and a kleptomaniac. It’s left to white actors to play the corrupted hero, the honest girl and the envious team mate. So, all the juicy roles.

We follow the protagonist on his inevitable journey from rags to riches to learning what really has value in the world. That isn’t a spoiler, because it’s a ridiculously conventional narrative. Indeed, things happen in the movie simply because it’s time for things to happen in a movie. Boy is poor but relatively happy? Check. Boy turns down involvement in morally questionable activity? Check. Girl visits boy to convince him to take part? Check. And so on. There is a (slight) hint of wit and sparkle in the dialogue, but it never really seems to lift itself off the page.

That may be due to the cast which – as with virtually everything else in this movie – is perfectly adequate but rarely exceptional. The two leads – Sturges and Bosworth – aren’t exceptionally strong or compelling, nor are they weak. Hollywood has apparently decided that not only do they need to be white, they need to be cast in their late 20s. Even by Hollywood standards it requires quite a bit of suspension of disbelief – you expect Kevin Spacey could play a friend rather than an evil college lecturer, but apparently that would take it too far.

Speaking of Spacey, he’s very good here. Much better than the material. He actually manages to inject a note of malice into this college professor. As anyone who has met a college professor knows, that is quite an achievement. Of course, Spacey is never less than engaging, and even with this two-dimensional character he’s… engaging.

The really interesting character to watch is Lawrence Fishburne. Fishburne is a great actor who doesn’t get the chance to show off very often and it’s refreshing to see him in badass mode again after the quasi-philosopher mode of The Matrix. He could play this kind of tough-as-nails role in his sleep (and there’s nothing special about his performance), but it’s nice to see him even in a small role.

Fishbourne’s subplot is the most interesting aspect of the film, despite (or because of) the fact it is so unrelated to everything else. The plot thread seems set up merely to explain the character’s actions at the film’s climax – indeed various aspects of the character only come into play when they are relevant to the plot (there’s no setup or foreshadowing). Still, this disjointed collection of scenes work because Fishburne is an interesting actor, it’s always fun to watch old veterans squeezed out of their work by new technology (here it’s facial recognition software causing the death of old Vegas security) and also because it’s always a great visual to see a character taken into the gray concrete bowels of Vegas, beneath the beautiful facade. Of course, it doesn’t go anywhere and the grim and gritty tone of his scenes doesn’t sit well with the otherwise bright and light fare, but it’s still the most interesting part of the movie.

The direction is a weird beast. It is at times (around the Vegas tables) brilliant and light and kinetic – everything but our lead becomes a blur as he focuses on the cards while the world spins around him. However, most of the movie is disappointingly conventional. Hip music montages! Hip music montages interrupted for comedic effect and then picked up where they left off! Vegas penthouse suite shots overlooking the city! It feels a bit cheap to criticise a director for failing to do something completely arbitrary, but it is interesting that a way couldn’t be found to render card counting in a visually stimulating manner – particularly since the rest of the casino scenes are built on visuals. Instead of anything engaging, we get the dreaded slow motion, enhanced sound and a monotonous voice over. It’s distractingly conventional, especially since the film prides itself on being flashy.

That said, the movie has an endearing wit about it, but it’s hard not believe that it couldn’t have been done better. It doesn’t drag, it doesn’t offend and it gives you pretty much what you know you’re going to get when you sit down. As ‘fun’ Vegas movies go, it lacks the sparkle and dazzle of the Oceans series. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the ending, but I’m really not too disappointed by it. Most Vegas-based finalé’s tend to get convoluted and rely upon visual trickery, and 21 is by no means a particularly aggrievous offender. Everything ends up wrapped in a nice tidy bow, but it always would. The movie certainly doesn’t seem like one to throw the audience a curve-ball on that, or to suddenly shatter audience expectations. In fact it meets most of them.

So, perhaps it’s a good thing it set out to be a perfectly average movie?

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