It’s been 45 years since Peter Sellers was unleashed as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the delicious Pink Panther. That 1963 film spawned numerous sequels and cartoons and in 2006 the baton was passed to Steve Martin -- who hatched a worldwide hit with his version of the French detective. In this meandering gag-laden sequel Martin is assigned to join a team of other famed international detectives and crime wizards to crack a case where priceless treasures are being stolen around the globe including of course the iconic Pink Panther diamond. Again aiding Clouseau in his own cause are his partner Panton (Jean Reno) and Nicole (Emily Mortimer) for whom he still has those amorous feelings. Let’s face it no one could top Sellers in this role and it’s wise that Martin doesn’t really try instead taking the character more toward The Jerk. Whether inadvertently burning restaurants down to the ground juggling wine bottles (in a particularly lame sequence) mangling the English language imitating the Pope or spouting hopelessly politically incorrect bon mots like calling an Asian colleague “my little yellow friend ” Martin plays it broadly and safely. As the quartet of international detectives brought in to solve the case with Clouseau Andy Garcia Alfred Molina Yuki Matsuzaki and gorgeous Aishwarya Rai Bachchan do everything they can to keep from being totally upstaged by Martin’s nonstop antics but it ain’t easy for any of them. Also of note: John Cleese takes Kevin Kline's place as Clouseau’s exasperated boss and Lily Tomlin Martin’s All of Me co-star are reunited here to teach him properly correct social etiquette. With a cast of capable comic veterans like this all any director would have to do is point the camera and make sure it’s in focus. And that seems to be ALL Dutch helmer Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks) has done. The PP template has been dumbed down to appeal to young kids and despite its picaresque Paris and Rome locations this comes off as surprisingly flat with a lot of comic possibility left twisting in the wind.
Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.