A flashy fictionalization of an extraordinary true-life story about college kids who counted cards to win big in Las Vegas, "21" is a better-than-even-money bet to be an important player in the spring B.O. tournament.

A flashy fictionalization of an extraordinary true-life story about college kids who counted cards to win big in Las Vegas, “21” is a better-than-even-money bet to be an important player in the spring B.O. tournament. Pic shrewdly shuffles together attractive young leads, cagey screen vets and a fantasy-fulfillment scenario in a slickly polished package that should appeal to anyone who’s ever dreamed of beating the odds. Only the lack of some truly megawatt star power might hold the Sony release back from a massive, rather than just lucrative, payday.

Sporting a reasonably convincing Boston accent, Brit up-and-comer Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”) makes a mostly winning impression as Ben Campbell, a brilliant, boyishly cute but awkwardly shy math-and-science whiz who wants to attend Harvard Medical School after completing his senior year at MIT. Trouble is, neither he nor his widowed mom (Helen Carey) can afford tuition.

So it doesn’t take much convincing to lure Ben onto a clandestine team of fellow MIT brainiacs assembled by Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a seductively snarky math professor and stats genius who presides over his college classes like a sardonic gameshow host. With a little help from sexy student Jill (Kate Bosworth), Mickey convinces Ben to join the high-stakes action while following the professor’s near-infallible system for counting cards at blackjack tables during weekend jaunts to Las Vegas.

The gameplan calls for a designated “big player” — either Ben or vet teammate Fisher (Jacob Pitts) — to wait for a signal from a “spotter” making low-wager bets. When one of the spotters — teammates Jill, Choi (Aaron Yoo) and Kianna (Liza Lapira) — indicates the dealer is working with a “hot deck,” the big player comes by and bets big. And keeps on betting, until the spotter signals him to vamoose.

Like a more conventional caper movie, “21” generates an impressive amount of suspense simply by meticulously explaining, and then deftly dramatizing, the nuts and bolts of an illicit enterprise. Spacey is darkly comical and icily authoritative as Mickey explains the rules of his game and repeatedly warns against getting too excited in the heat of the moment.

Mickey makes it perfectly clear to his players that, if they break his rules, they’ll be brutally punished. But perhaps not as brutally as they might be treated by Cole Williams (an intimidating Laurence Fishburne), a badass casino “enforcer” who takes a hands-on approach to discouraging card counters.

Working from “Bringing Down the House,” Ben Mezrich’s bestselling account of the real-life MIT students who took Vegas for millions in the 1990s, director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde,” “Monster-in-Law”) and scripters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb sporadically resort to predictable character developments, logic-stretching plot twists and full-bore melodramatics. It’s never made clear how it’s so easy for Mickey to impose his iron will on a player who displeases him in the third act, and Ben’s evolution from buttoned-down nerd to “Viva Las Vegas” libertine, while amusing, is not entirely plausible in the way it’s dramatized (or, to be more accurate, announced) here.

Sturgess does a first-rate job sustaining the aud’s rooting interest in his character, even though there’s conspicuously little heat to his scenes with the well-cast Bosworth. Spacey gives a performance that could be labeled “Honey-Baked” and sliced up for sandwiches — which is precisely what makes him so much fun. Supporting players, including Josh Gad and Sam Golzari as Ben’s uber-nerd best buddies, are aces.

The visual-effects team led by Gray Marshall employs all manner of camera techniques and CGI trickery to give many of the blackjack games the pizzazz of a state-of-the-art vidgame. (Cards and chips appear exhilaratingly surreal in massive closeups.) And that comes in very handy whenever Luketic wants to amp up the excitement during sequences where, really, people are doing nothing more dramatic than placing bets and playing cards.

Lenser Russell Carpenter enhances pic overall with stark contrasts between snowy Boston and neon-lit Vegas locations. Soundtrack abounds with aptly chosen pop tunes, although the closing credits are underscored by what may be the worst remix of a Rolling Stones song (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) ever heard in a major motion picture.

21

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Trigger Street/Michael De Luca production. Produced by De Luca, Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey. Executive producers, William S. Beasley, Brett Ratner, Ryan Kavanaugh. Directed by Robert Luketic. Screenplay, Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb, based on the book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Russell Carpenter; editor, Elliott Graham; music, David Sardy; production designer, Missy Stewart; art director, James Truesdale; set decorator, Tracey A. Doyle; costume designer, Luca Mosca; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Gary C. Bourgeois, Greg Orloff; visual effects supervisor, Gray Marshall; visual effects, Gray Matter FX; assistant director, Justin Muller; casting, Francine Maisler, Lauren Gray. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 24, Houston, March 4, 2008. (In SXSW Film Festival -- Spotlight Premieres.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 122 MIN.

With

Ben Campbell - Jim Sturgess Mickey Rosa - Kevin Spacey Jill - Kate Bosworth Choi - Aaron Yoo Kianna - Liza Lapira Fisher - Jacob Pitts Cole Williams - Laurence Fishburne Terry - Jack McGee Miles - Josh Gad Cam - Sam Golzari Ellen Campbell - Helen Carey

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