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August 29, 2014

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Review:

As reality, OK, but as art …

Watching others gamble just isn’t very interesting

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SONY PICTURES

From left, Jim Sturgess, Jacob Pitts, Liza Lapira, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey

Card Counting

The film "21" reveals the true story of six MIT students who learn the art of card counting. But you don't have to have a photograhic memory to become a card counter, just discipline and a lot of practice. Sun writer Jeff Haney shows the basic concept behind the MIT crew's card counting scheme.

If You Go

  • What: “21”
  • Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content including partial nudity
  • Running time: 123 minutes
  • Playing at: Brenden Theatres Las Vegas 14, Century Cinedome 12 Henderson, Century Orleans 18, Century Sam’s Town, Century 16 Santa Fe Station, Century 16 South Point, Galaxy Cannery, Galaxy Neonopolis, Rave Town Square 18, Regal Cinemas Fiesta Henderson 12, Regal Cinemas Green Valley Ranch 10, Regal Cinemas Red Rock 16, Regal Cinemas Sunset Station, Regal Cinemas Texas Station 18, Regal Cinemas Village Square 18, UA Rainbow Promenade 10, UA Showcase 8
  • Showtimes and admission: Contact theater or go to www.fandango.com

The big winners in the blackjack-themed “21” are the casinos at Red Rock Resort and Planet Hollywood, both of which get a good ride, product placement-wise.

The first of three Las Vegas-centric movies opening this spring, “21” somehow manages to make the Massachusetts Institute of Technology look more exciting than the casino at the Venetian. (Up next: “Deal” and “What Happens in Vegas.”)

Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2002 best-selling book, “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” (the subtitle pretty much spells out the intriguing premise of the true story), “21” maintains interest for about 20 minutes before it craps out.

Bright-eyed idealist Ben (Jim Sturgess) needs $300,000 to enter Harvard Medical School. After some time-wasting reluctance, he’s recruited to join a dream team of MIT’s most brilliant mathletes and drilled in card-counting, secret codes and signals. Armed with fake IDs and preposterous disguises, Ben and the Odds Squad jet to Vegas every weekend and milk the blackjack tables dry.

“21” could pass as the evil twin of “Good Will Hunting,” with an amusingly serpentine Kevin Spacey as the seemingly benevolent professor who genially mentors his crew of whiz kids, then turns out to be a ruthless pimp. Laurence Fishburne is underused but glowers with convincing menace in his bad-guy role as a casino heavy who monitors the surreptitious “eye in the sky” technology that threatens to replace him and his colleagues.

But director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) never solves the movie’s basic problem: Watching someone else gamble is about as suspenseful as watching someone type or talk on the phone. What’s seen on-screen doesn’t live up to the pulse-pounding soundtrack, which includes thumping electro-rock tracks by MGMT, LCD Soundsystem and Knivez Out.

Ben’s rise-fall-redemption trajectory is predictable, and the single sex scene (between Sturgess and a dead-eyed Kate Bosworth) is heatless and ho-hum. The Vegas rewards after their big-money wins — shopping sprees in casino malls and shouting “Whoo!” in strip clubs — are sadly lackluster and look less than luxurious. The big ending devolves into a klutzy “Scooby-Doo” chase scene through casino kitchens and catacombs.

The movie was filmed at several Las Vegas locations, but it lacks dazzle and disappointingly fails to provide a fresh vision of the Strip — it looks like a reworking of chamber of commerce b-roll footage. And one shot of the card-counting gang swaggering in slo-mo lock step through casinos is more than enough (not to mention the multiple montages of slapping cards, shifting piles of colorful chips and currency floating through the air).

Locals will find some fun in scene-spotting, in particular a shot that features Spacey and the kids celebrating in a Hard Rock Hotel suite that somehow has a close-up view of the Bellagio fountains.

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