- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

“21” gives movies “based on a true story” a bad name.

The blackjack drama may be inspired by real card counters, but there’s little here that could have come from anywhere but a screenwriter’s imagination.

That doesn’t matter at first. We’re distracted by the attractive cast and intoxicating camerawork. (Who knew tight close-ups of cards slapping down on a blackjack table could be so enthralling?) Before long, though, we realize that the minds behind “21” only have a pair of deuces up their sleeves.

Based on the book “Bringing Down the House,” “21” follows a team of whiz kids from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who count cards for a cagey professor named Mickey (Kevin Spacey, who co-produced the film).

The team wants to expand its roster to include Ben (Jim Sturgess), a fellow student with an uncanny feel for numbers. Ben isn’t sure the group is right for him.

He would rather pay for medical school the honest way — toiling at a local men’s shop for eight bucks an hour. Plus, he’s a long shot for a full scholarship if he just nails the application essay.

But Ben’s no dummy. He does the math and realizes he’ll never be able to afford medical school at his current salary.

His puts his better judgment aside and joins the team. Besides, his college crush, Jill (Kate Bosworth), is also on the roster.

Ben proves a quick study during his first Las Vegas weekend, impressing Mickey and earning a wad of cash in the process. It’s the start of his transformation from bookworm into all-around jerk.

Counting cards costs more than just the loss of longtime friends. An early sequence shows what happens to card counters who tip their hand. Laurence Fishburne plays the head of casino security for one of Mickey’s favorite targets, and he doesn’t mind pummeling card counters to make them take their act elsewhere.

Will Ben suffer a similar fate? And is Jill more interested in his mind than his body? Mr. Sturgess gains our trust in the early scenes, making his ethical quandary our own, but the more his character succumbs to Vegas’ temptations, the less interesting he becomes.

The same holds true for the rest of “21.” Mr. Spacey’s precise intonations would wow an acting class, but it’s in support of a phantom of a role. Just what makes Mickey tick? Darned if we know after nearly two hours immersed in his world.

The same holds true for Miss Bosworth. The screenplay, by Peter Seinfeld (2005’s “Be Cool”) and Allan Loeb (2007’s “Things We Lost in the Fire”), gives her character little motivation beyond wardrobe changes. She begins as a pretty distraction for Ben and essentially remains that way until the final credits.

And can we call a moratorium on slow-motion sequences? Ben and his crew prowl the casinos in so many slow-motion shots it seems the projector must be broken.

You don’t have to count cards to know the score in “21.” It’s a losing gamble despite its pretty packaging.

**

TITLE: “21”

RATING: PG-13 (Adult language, sexual situations and violence)

CREDITS: Directed by James Luketic. Written by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb based on the book “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.com/movies/21/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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