"21" is one of the most disappointing and dismaying movies to emerge from the land of dreams – America. It tells us that immorality is not just a modern motivating mantra, it is fine, if used in the right doses, no matter how many feelings or bones get crushed under one’s enterprising spirit.
The fact that all the debased characters, using a pack of cards to make a fool of the universe (and that includes us in the audience, watching their Casino Royale-meets-Quentin Tarantino antics), are based on real people doesn’t make the film or its characters more interesting. It just makes them more annoying in their ambitions.
The central character of a young, middle-class student struggling to make ends meet is played by fairly wooden actor Jim Sturgess, who just might become the latest teen sensation after this film. He has the right attitude of ‘I know it all though I may appear stupid and dumb’.
When you’re young, you do stupid things – like taking on a massive gambling organisation in Las Vegas. But one presumes neither the film’s director nor the professor-protagonist who trains his students into reckless and criminal gambling are young and stupid.
So what makes the film’s sassy premise – gambling your way to doom – such a good idea? There’s no tangible explanation why a noble profession like teaching should be turned into a blackjack game. "21" is the college-campus version of "Ocean’s 11". Here, however, the glamour of gambling is much reduced since the protagonists with the cards are confused teenagers who should know better. There’s a callow hero and a shallow mentor and the twain never meet as individuals.
The other members of the blackjack team are woefully hazy in their depiction, as though the director didn’t want to invest too much time and energy getting into the fringe players’ lives.
There are some expertly done shots of the casino’s compulsions spilling into colourful chips in a splendid tumble. But that’s it. "21" is more about the hype and hip than the plot and script. There’re no surprises in the way the maths team subverts its art into a Zen of vice.
You really can’t like these guys, let alone feel connected with them. Not when the young hero sells out his guru to the casino goons in return for his own freedom. He walks free. So do we. But after two hours of wondering which side we are on.