For me, it started with a glaring continuity error.
Let’s back up for a minute here. The most important thing a movie needs to do is keep your disbelief suspended. It’s what lets you watch James Bond movies and think of a car with missles under the engine as integral to the plot (Die Another Day is another matter). Three hours of The Lord of the rings would scarcely work if you couldn’t for that time believe the story.
So it’s an inauspicious start when there’s a simple and glaring continuity error. Not very long into the film, we see Kevin Spacey’s too-clever-by-half MIT lecturer deal out the first round of a Blackjack game. Cards are dealt face up to the the four players, and that’s part of the key to 21‘s premise, that you can beat the system by counting which cards have been dealt and so concluding which cards are left.
The camera then switches to a shot of our nominal protagonist, Ben (Jim Sturgess). He’s making excuses for not joining the team. You know it’s a weak excuse because the premise of the movie, what you’ve seen in the trailer, is that he’s going to go to Vegas-Baby-Vegas. The shot switches back to Spacey, and bam – continuity. There are now 6 cards on the table, face down.
If you’re not looking for it, you might not see it (though after reading this, you certainly will be). I wanted to see the cards out of curiosity at the hands dealt, expecting the first lesson in card counting to come then. But the sudden jolt of continuity threw me back into the fact that I’m in a theatre, and the elementary rules you expect to be followed have just been thrown out. It’s the same as why programmers can’t stand to watch movies about “hackers” – knowing what you know, the pretensions to reality are implausible.
And here, it’s something as simple as cards being upside down. It throws you off the dialogue, and makes you walk back through the plot you’ve seen already, thinking about whether you’ve missed any other goofs.
The second most important thing for a movie is to not be entirely predictable, and on that count, 21 fails utterly, and miserably.
At the very outset, we have Ben sitting at an interview for a scholarship, and he’s being asked the question of what “life experience” he has, what makes him “jump off the page”. You know right then that he’s not going to end up with the cash, because this plot point has to come full circle.
From there on, it just falls over cliche after cliche. Mix equal parts ordinary-but-talented youngster, former-golden-boy-with-rivalry, blonde-potential-girlfriend, former-champion-now-coach and goofy-offsiders-for-laughs with a standard issue pride-comes-before-a-fall and crime-never-pays (though the characters keep reminding us counting cards technically isn’t illegal) narratives and you’ll churn out something like 21. You’ve seen this movie before – just substitute blackjack for sport x.
About the only saving grace this movie has is the sidekick characters and their respective actors, who turn in performances both consistent and actually entertaining. Ben’s two sidekick geek friends play well to type, often eliciting the best laughs of the movie. The two minor characters in the blackjack team are the ones looking most likely the actually play, both the game and their fake identies. Alan Choo provides maybe 40% of the film’s laughs, and you barely see the guy on screen.
The major characters and their actors are inconsistent, with Sturgess’ Ben the worst of the lot. Somehow he swings from shy-guy egghead to a glitzy, confident playa of the Vegas strip in a brief photo montage. The movie is two hours long, but within that time Ben is allowed no time to establish himself – he goes from geek to blackjack genius the space of a short photo montage demonstrating nothing. That’s not to mention the fact that he apparently thinks the roof cavity is a safe place to stash your cash winnings.
Bosworth stubbornly refuses to demonstrate she can outside of the role she called in for Superman Returns. Spacey and Fishburne are given the most lattitude with their performances, but both seem to have only two gears to shift between.
I’m not necessarily saying it’s the fault of the actors here, however. I’m sure the book this story is based on is a compelling read, actually being a real story – the writers for 21 must have written this during the writer’s strike, because it really does churn through every cliche in the book. An interesting premise is thrown away for nothing in the glitz and glam of showing off Vegas, like it needs more marketing.
You can’t expect every movie to be different or brilliant, but what this movie tries to sell in its trailer, it fails to live up. Don’t even try to think you could pick up the card counting technique – Vegas casinos clearly wouldn’t have let them film if there had been anything for Joe Smith to pick up from this.
The “signals” used are weak, disguises laughable, and they act surprised that they get caught when they repeat the same action over and over, apparently week-in-week-out at the same places. One signal, touching the eye to say “we need to talk,” is not only pointless as they aren’t supposed to know each other on the table, but never used in the actual blackjack gaming.
Whatever you want to poke at this movie, you’ll find a hole to accomodate. It’s a fun ride if you can switch your mind off and haven’t seen Vegas before, but there’s nothing in 21 you haven’t seen before, or need to see again. Go watch Ocean’s 11. ★☆