70) 21 (2008) Dir: Robert Luketic Date Released: March 2008 Date Seen: March 12th, 2009 Rating: 1.5/5
While 21 is the story of Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a brilliant, ambitious young thing taking on the world and rolling the dice with love and black jack, one can’t help but root for the film’s bad guy, Cole Williams (Larry Fishburne), the brainy bruiser that sets out to take him down. Though his defining philosophy holds no more water than Ben’s or his skeevy mentor Prof. Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, of course; Pacino and Walken were both busy), it hits home the most. In a moment of flag-waving, character-defining clarity, Williams laments the fact that times are a-changin’ for the casinos and that he’s no longer hip and/or “with it.” Immediately this means that he’s pissed about being replaced by a piece of face-recognizing hardware but indirectly it hints at the biggest reason why 21 is such a good sleeping pill—it’s almost impossible to preserve the mystique of even the classiest gambling den.
There’s really no way to cinematically encapsulate or reproduce the sleazy charm of a casino without cheap storytelling techniques that over-glamorize everything ‘til they’ve triggered your gag reflex. Casinos are zoos and like any other sensual attraction, their pleasures are of the moment. They’re memorable only in so far as the individual person’s experience is so when that person’s experience is a paint-by-numbers plot about the rise, fall and rise again of a real-life prodigal boy genius, things tend to get pretty dull pretty quick. There’s nothing wrong with the players involved but there’s nothing memorable or even likeable about them.
Knowing what will happen to them, how it will happen and how those events will be portrayed—without knowing anything about the real-life characters beforehand, mind you—not only sucks the life out of the story but stymies any kind of vicarious enjoyment. It takes no risks and doesn’t even give an excuse to sate the mildest kind of curiosity the film’s “style” might elicit. It deserves to be airplane viewing.