Jim Sturgess as Ben Campbell
Kevin Spacey as Micky Rosa
Kate Bosworth as Jill Taylor
Aaron Yoo as Choi
Liza Lapira as Kianna
Jacob Pitts as Fisher
Laurence Fishburne as Cole Williams
Jack McGee as Terry
Josh Gad as Miles Connoly
Sam Golzari as Cam
Helen Carey as Ellen Campbell
Jack Gilpin as Bob Phillips
Jeffrey Ma as Planet Hollywood Dealer Jeff
Directed by Robert Luketic
Ryan Phillippe as Brandon King
Abbie Cornish as Michelle
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Burgess
Channing Tatum as Steve Shriver
Timothy Olyphant as Lt. Col. Boot Miller
Victor Rasuk as Rico Rodriguez
Rob Brown as Isaac 'Eyeball' Butler
Terry Quay as Al 'Preacher' Colson
Alex Frost as Shorty
Matthew Scott Wilcox as Harvey
Connett Brewer as Curtis
Josef Sommer as Senator Orton Worrell
Linda Emond as Ida King
Ciarán Hinds as Roy King
Mamie Gummer as Jeanie
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Two film choices this weekend offer movies geared towards young people about people their own age, one being a fantasy caper based on a true story given a suitably MTV-like sheen, while the other, an MTV Films release, keeps its foot firmly in reality while dealing with a far more relevant topic than blackjack that might not seem as immediately entertaining, but offers far more weight and intelligence, ultimately leaving a more lasting impression. In both cases, the movies are by directors doing the unexpected, Robert ("Legally Blonde") Luketic breaking away from his romantic comedy crutch with "21" and Kimberly Peirce making the war drama "Stop-Loss" after a painfully long gap since her debut, "Boys Don't Cry."
Based on the novel "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich, "21" stars Jim ("Across the Universe") Sturgess as Ben Campbell, an MIT student trying to raise tuition for Harvard Medical at a variety of dead-end jobs when he's recruited by professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) to join a team of blackjack players, who make money in Vegas by counting cards.
"Stop-Loss" begins in Iraq where a group of soldiers are on a mission gone wrong, leaving some of them dead, others wounded and the rest of them shaken up. Three of them return to their small hometown in Texas where Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is declared a national hero, although he has already decided that his time in the military is finished. His teammates Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon Levitt) are having troubles adjusting to being home after witnessing so much unnecessary death, and Steve ends up flipping out and taking out his anger on his high school fiancee Michelle (Abbie Cornish). Brandon soon learns that the army has "stop-lossed" him, forcing him to return to Iraq after his tour of duty has officially ended, so he goes AWOL on a soul-searching road trip with Michelle, causing further problems back home.
The first half hour of "21" is very entertaining as it introduces Ben, played by the infinitely likeable Sturgess, and loosely explaining how card counting works, which is quite fascinating and not as easy as it looks. One can easily understand why one would need an analytical brain to be successful, and Ben is more "Beautiful Mind" John Nash than Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man" though his story arc follows the same "rags to riches" formula as "Boiler Room" and "Wall Street" where Ben's success has to lead to an inevitable fall as lets it go to his head.
The film deviates further and further from the novel as it throws in too many plot developments and twists to keep things interesting, whether Ben is butting heads with a jealous and competitive teammate or his mentor Mickey or when he finally gets caught by Laurence Fishburne's Cole Williams, an old school Vegas security guard who catches onto the team's system--not that it would be hard since their "secret signals" make it blatantly obvious. For Spacey and Fishburne, their roles are walks in the park that offer few real challenges to them as actors, and Bosworth's role is fairly inconsequential as the love interest who never quite takes sides during any of the friction. There's plenty of comedy relief (almost too much) to keep things light from Aaron "Disturbia" Yoo, sharing that role with Liza Lampira, as well as with Josh Gad and Sam Golzari as Ben's stereotyped nerd friends who are left behind with his newfound hobby.
As much as "Stop-Loss" deals with weightier issues, the film is as polarizing as the war in Iraq itself, handling the subject of shell-shocked veterans in a similar way as "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter." Unlike Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," Peirce doesn't try to force her own opinion of the rights or wrongs of war down the viewer's throat, and stronger writing keeps it from pandering to uninformed movie audiences like the dumbed-down "Home of the Brave."
"21" is hurt by an unnecessary amount of foreshadowing that makes it obvious where things are heading, especially Ben's uncharacteristically bone-headed moves—what brilliant MIT student would try to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in a dorm room?—that can only lead to trouble later. Peirce constantly tries to veer away from the expected, although the entire movie suffers from its slow dialogue-driven pace. "21" may be a convoluted ensemble-heavy mess by comparison, but at least it's kept moving by Luketic's flashy montages and an impressive electronica soundtrack that drives the film. (Disclaimer: Having worked with the film's composer/music supervisor Dave Sardy, this reviewer may be somewhat biased.)
Peirce keeps things tighter and more focused on her characters, proving that Hilary Swank's performance in "Boys Don't Cry" was no fluke by producing equally satisfying performances from Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish. One of Australia's finest young ingénues, Cornish is particularly convincing as the tough young Texan woman trying to come to grips with the events that have caused such suffering and changes in her fiance and childhood friends. The chemistry between Phillippe and Cornish makes their time on the road the best part of the movie, although thankfully, their relationship does not go where some might expect. It clearly shows how the Hollywood esthetics of "21" hurt it compared to the indie approach taken with "Stop-Loss" that allows it to be far more credible.
Not to say there aren't any problems with Peirce's sophomore effort, which has to compete with far more powerful, hard-hitting documentaries about the troubles faced by many returning soldiers. By comparison, her movie softens their behavior to insure that the audience doesn't turn on them, especially when dealing with the tough but very real issue of domestic violence committed by returning soldiers. One can certainly understand why one wouldn't want to make a movie that might paint our troops in a negative light but it hurts the film's realism. The potential impact of one key character's death is greatly lessened by happening off-camera after being carelessly telegraphed earlier.
Whether or not you've read the source novel, "21" ends up just about where you might expect but leaves you wondering how much of this "true story" really happened since it does shift far away from the book in order to conform to the Hollywood rags-to-riches mold. "Stop-Loss" ends on a note that will frustrate some, depending which side they're on by the film's ending, because it's hard to understand or approve Brandon's decision after everything he's been through, but it does get points for not going where expected and not ending on a pat note. Only then does Peirce drive home the implications of the government's ability to call back soldiers after they've fulfilled their commitment and how the policy may have added to the number of soldiers killed in the war.
The Bottom Line:
While "21" is entertaining fun, it's flawed in its overuse of Hollywood cliches and trickery that makes it predictable and less believable. While "Stop-Loss" might never be viewed as light entertainment, the strong performances and ideas makes it a far more satisfying film, one that you can ponder and discuss after the fact, as well as being a powerful tribute to our troops, both the ones in Iraq and those who've already returned home.