Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a genius. At the top of his class at MIT, his mind can add, subtract, multiply and divide large numbers. He wants to attend Harvard Medical School, but there's a problem: money.
"21" follows Ben as he is recruited to join a team of fellow students who spend weekends in Las Vegas playing blackjack. Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) has trained a team of students who count the cards in the shoe of eight decks used to deal at a blackjack table. One student sits at the table and counts the number of face cards, tens and aces played. When the shoe has lots of higher cards in it, the student signals another to come and play.
All this adds up to big bucks. None of this is illegal, but the casinos don't like it because it costs them money.
Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is part of a security company that works to keep card cheats and counters out of the casinos. He does his work old school and is being pressured out of business by computer technology. He soon becomes aware of something going on with the large amounts of money being paid out at some tables.
Ben begins as a nebbish, nerdy student with two similar friends. The three are highly intelligent, but socially inept. Ben starts acting differently as he goes deeper and deeper into the world of gambling. He spends less time with his friends and more time in his new world—which puts him on a collision course with Williams.
He also loses one of his gifts: his ability not to get emotional. Instead of following the system laid out, he really starts to gamble.
What "21" attempts to do is retell the old legend of Faust. Ben acts as Faust, who begins his journey thinking he will just get the money needed for medical school and get out. Professor Rosa is Mephistopheles, who offers Ben a means to an end. But once the hook is in, Rosa reels him deeper and deeper into a hedonistic life that one finds hard walking away from.
There is nothing Ben can want that Rosa can't provide, meaning that Rosa has absolute power over Ben. He can insure that Ben gets grades when work is due but not done. He can also make Ben's life miserable, or destroy it completely.
This morality play is light on the consequences of the characters' actions. It doesn't give us too many circumstances where we would see their behavior as something to avoid. Ben squires around the best-looking girl in the school (Kate Bosworth), with access to luxury suites and exotic bars. The cautionary aspects of this story are played out quickly and almost painlessly, which is sad.
"21" is directed to younger viewers, and the message here is needed. Our culture teaches that riches and fame are possible; you just have to find the right angle. Grab all the money you can; it doesn't matter if you find a short cut. Take any road you want; just find your way to a big payday. This movie has the potential to point out the danger of this kind of thinking, but it does not.
Jesus spoke clearly and forcefully about the path our lives should take. He said in Matthew 7:
"Don't look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don't fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention."
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity.
Director: Robert Luketic
Writers: Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb
Cast: Ben Campbell: Jim Sturgess; Prof. Mickey Rosa: Kevin Spacey; Cole Williams: Laurence Fishburne; Jill Taylor: Kate Bosworth; Choi: Aaron Yoo; Kianna: Liza Lapira; Jimmy Fisher: Jacob Pitts.
The movie's official Web site is here.