Casinos, cunning ploys, sharply tailored suits and lots of money: These are the ingredients that have comprised much of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy in which beautiful Hollywood stars apply their wits to rob casinos. This type of film has once again been revived in the recent film 21, a story about much younger ingénues who use not their thieving minds, but their mathematical brains, to fleece Las Vegas casinos for all they're worth.
Directed by relative newcomer Robert Luketic and featuring fine performances from some old-hands and a few promising rising talents, the film is an enjoyable romp, leaving artistic pretension at the door and simply embracing how sleek and entertaining making millions off blackjack can be.
Working with screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, Luketic crafts his rollicking movie with smoothness and a clipped pace. The film is concerned with the budding math genius Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) struggling to pay his way through MIT. Spotted by his outwardly cordial but inwardly bitter math professor Dr. Micky Rosa (played, finally, with the excellence Kevin Spacey has been holding back for years), the humble and soft-spoken Campbell becomes a wiz at not only blackjack, but Rosa's particular way of scamming casinos. Campbell joins a crew of strong-headed and waif-like classmates, does well for a time, and of course succumbs to the seductive pull of greed toward the end.
This isn't particularly original plotting, and it doesn't need to be. Aside from being adapted from a non-fiction book by Ben Mizrich, the arch of the characters is standard, and the structure of the film doesn't make its twists that hard to unravel. Still, the film is enjoyable in some other ways. Its script is particularly sharp, and the polished dialogue is delivered with believability and clarity by the diverse cast.
Even Luketic, who, crafting a commercial film about Las Vegas, is under no obligation to provide anything more than pomp and flash. He provides a sprinkling of nice shots and some vaguely interesting camera work, just enough to keep this film from middling in completely forgettable territory directorially. And, as mentioned, Sturgess and Spacey make fine appearances. While Spacey's performance is strongly redemptive, Sturgess, last seen in Across the Universe, provides some very fine acting, upstaging almost everyone else with his turn as a demure robotics enthusiast turned voracious card shark.
It's nice to see, after a string of poorly executed March commercial films, a movie that, while not artistically brave, can still provide a smart and entertaining romp without succumbing to the predilections of crudely bombastic production values. 21 is streamlined, clear and provides a pleasantly succinct story. Paired with enjoyable writing and surprisingly fine performances, it's the rare commercial March release. Unlike the early-year refuge of cinematic ballast, this is actually enjoyable.