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Wednesday, March 26, 2008 04:08 am

Wasted youth

21 deals a winning hand; Stop-Loss questions a generation’s patriotism

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21 Running time 2:03 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West

Based on Ben Mezrich’s bestselling book Bringing Down the House, Robert Luketic’s 21 makes a strong argument for paying attention in math class. Six students from MIT decide to moonlight as Vegas hustlers to help pay off the college loans that will be hanging over their heads once they graduate. Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, back on solid cinematic ground) picks the best of the best for his bank-busting team. The initial resistance of his newest recruit, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a rather naïve kid who can count cards as naturally as I take a breath, is undercut by the allure of Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), who persuades him to get on board, and his fascination with the technique they’ll be using to count cards at the blackjack tables. The potential for riches doesn’t hurt, either. More at home with romantic comedies (Legally Blonde, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!), Luketic applies the rapid-fire pacing he used in those films to good effect here. The first two acts, in which Ben and the others are seduced by the glitz of the Strip and their ability to conquer it, breeze along and are compelling not only because of the pacing but also because of the scams they’re pulling off, which are pretty darn cool. The tension that develops between Rosa and Ben is a bonus, as is the presence of Laurence Fishburne as Cole Williams, a Vegas big shot who isn’t averse to breaking a few bones.
The script jumps the tracks during the third act as the crew tries to pull a sting that’s a bit too convoluted to follow or believe. (Where are Newman and Redford when you need them?) Still, 21 isn’t supposed to be high art; it’s an entertaining diversion used to rob you of your time and money, much as Vegas does. The only difference here is that you’re only out eight bucks and losing it is a lot of fun.
Stop-Loss Running time 1:53 Rated R ShowPlace West

The stakes for the kids in Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss are much higher. Focusing on a group of patriotic young soldiers who’ve willingly served in Iraq, the film deals with a situation that more than 81,000 enlistees have had to endure: the stop-loss policy. Having completed their tours of duty, these young men are told that they must return to the frontlines for an undetermined period. Lawsuits are useless, and the psychological damage done to these men continues as they question not only their own purpose but that of the country they’ve honorably served.
Sgts. Brandon King and Steve Shriver (Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum) are the soldiers on opposite sides of this issue. After a great deal of soul-searching, King decides to fight the Army’s decision, but Shriver’s resolve to answer the call to duty remains unwavering. The two young actors yell and scream with the best of them, but the quiet moments in which each passionately expresses his beliefs to loved ones are what give the film its heart. Meanwhile, fellow soldier Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is having a hard time adjusting to civilian life, and his erratic behavior is having a negative effect on his young marriage.
That the young men the three actors represent are being left to cope with their return to civilized society on their own is only one of the axes director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) has to grind. She makes sure to show the wide-reaching ramifications of this corrupt policy, particularly in regard to the parents of those who decide to turn their back on their government and live life on the lam. Brandon’s parents (Ciarán Hinds and Linda Emond) are supportive of their son’s decision, despite the trial they will all have to endure. However, it’s Abbie Cornish who steals the show. As Michelle, torn between Brandon and Steve, she is forced to choose between her heart and her soul. She and the other soldiers in her company are engaged in a conflict they have no way of winning, giving Stop-Loss its sense of anger. This film demands that you listen to its fervent message. To do any less would be cowardice on the viewer’s part.
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