Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Turning the true story of the Vegas-breaking MIT card counting team into a rambling bore is quite the task, but director Robert Luketic and scribes Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb give it their best with 21 (an impossibly bland title that only hints at the content within). Inherently compelling source material is Hollywood-ized to the point where we know this is a (mostly) true story, and we still don´t buy any of it; the cavalcade of cliché characters and plot devices is wearying. Still, pic deals nuanced performances from Kevin Spacey and Lawrence Fishbourne and the requisite amount of Vegas glitz and glam; it isn´t all bad.
Outlined in the novel Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Blackjack team was a group of college students, led by the mysterious Mr. M, who learned how to play blackjack by the book, count cards, and play as a team. They formed an official company and went to Las Vegas, where, for a while, they made a killing. 21 follows the very basic outline of this, replacing Mr. M with an arrogant Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), and giving us a team of young students as protags including Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) and Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth). Film doesn´t realize, or care, how fascinating the factual details of the story may be, instead choosing to barrage us with the flashy but dull rise and fall of the youths, particularly Ben. By the end we learn…nothing that we didn´t already know.
Most disappointingly, film never delves into the nitty-gritty of card counting, perhaps in an attempt to avoid being a how-to guide for potential counters. Yet a how-to guide would be far more compelling than this generic mediocrity. Watch the History Channel´s TV special Breaking Vegas for a far more interesting look at the MIT card counting team(s), an improvement over this film simply because it sticks to the facts and shows us exactly what the team did, how they did it, and what happened to them.
One aspect of the film I did like: Lawrence Fishbourne´s role as a casino security enforcer whose position is slowly being phased out by high-tech computers; Fishbourne is terrific, and the role has the kind of depth that the rest of the film is sorely lacking. Spacey has had a long run of mediocre films since an outstanding run in the mid-to-late ‘90´s, and though 21 certainly doesn´t change that, it gives the actor one of the meatier roles he´s had in awhile, and the picture occasionally comes to life when he´s on the screen. Unfortunately, that isn´t enough, and the rest of the cast is bland, bland, bland; Sturgess and Bosworth give it their best but the characters are so poorly written we never get a feel for them.
A competent serial killer thriller for two-thirds of the way, Gregory Hoblit´s Untraceable loses itself with a generic – and completely out of place – final act. Film itself is rather generic, the usual Se7en-influenced thriller with the modern torture-porn sensibilities of Saw and Hostel, but the premise of the film is genuinely fascinating: a killer sets up www.killwithme.com, a website users can enter and watch people die, live through a webcam. The more users visit the site, the faster a victim will be killed through various Rube Goldberg-like death devices (this sets up a ridiculous number of 17 million US users logging on later in the film – morally questionable or not, there’s advertising revenue to be had there).
FBI Cybercrime Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is soon on the case, determining that the website in question is, in fact (drumroll please) “untraceable”. Well, not completely untraceable: it is somewhere in the local Portland area where Marsh lives and works. As the website´s victims escalate from a cat stuck on flypaper to people that may have some connection to one another, Marsh, co-worker Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks), and Detective Eric Box (Billy Burke) close in on the party responsible. And they do find the killer, sooner than one might expect at the end of act two, and as his motivations are revealed I was genuinely satisfied with the film, which had proven an interesting and mildly compelling diversion for a little over an hour.
Then it all goes to hell, as the killer begins to track our heroine, as must happen in these films (despite the killer lacking any kind of motivation to do so here). The plot, of course, requires both the killer and our heroine to behave like complete idiots and make themselves easy prey. Film arrives at the expected conclusion, but requires drastic changes in character and leaps of faith from the viewer in order to do so. I was unable to forgive these lapses; you may feel differently.
Oddly, the intricate moral question at the heart of the film is mostly left unexplored: would you watch someone die if you knew your act of watching it was speeding up the process? I´d come up with some quippy line here implicating viewers of Untraceable in the career fatalities of its filmmakers, but the film isn´t that bad. Only its ending.