Movies about ripping off casinos or working the systems they use has been a source of a myriad of films, most recently the Oceans series. With that trilogy effectively “wrapped” for now (until someone decides otherwise), what better time than now to adapt the true story of MIT students counting cards in Las Vegas and raking in more cash than they could ever hope? While the critical reception was low, 21 managed to make its budget over four times when worldwide box office intake is taken into account. The film stars starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Spacey in the leads, with Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jack McGee and Jacob Pitts acting as the supporting cast.
Inspired by the true story of MIT students who mastered the art of card counting, 21 focuses on Ben Campbell (Sturgess), a soon-to-be-MIT graduate looking for a way to fund his Harvard medical education. When he’s approached by one of his teachers, Professor Mickey Rosa (Spacye), to join a group of MIT students to travel down to Vegas on the weekend to count cards at casinos and take home thousands as a result, Ben resists at first before finally giving in when he realizes he has no choice but to play cards to get into the school of his dreams. Although he starts out initially as it simply being a way of earning money for school, Ben quickly gets swept up into the life of someone who has money to burn and finds it hard to walk away from the glamorous life.
I’d wanted to see 21 since I saw the trailers for it, simply because it looked like an entertaining and fun film. My presumptions were correct, as it certainly kept you engaged for its two hour run time, but it’s the type of film that begins to fall apart if you stare at it too long. Like a house of cards, the slightest breeze will blow it over and send it crumbling to the ground. Still, for those not looking to overanalyze what they’re seeing, it’s a run film that had me quite tense for the first half, although interest began to wane by the end.
What had me interested in 21 from the start was the concept of card counting. I had assumed it was something you had to have a lightning fast brain for, but it’s really just simple math. While the film never properly explains the concept, one of the extras on the set does and by the end of it I was starting to get the hang of it. Not that I think I could count cards, I’m sure I’d lose track of it at some point, but I was just surprised by how easy it was to do, should you have the concentration and brain power to spare. By the first time Ben started counting, I actually found myself on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what happened. I wasn’t sure why, but there was something about the films pacing that just made it incredibly engaging.
It began to cool by the end, however, when the obligatory “Oh no I messed up!” sequence came into play and Ben’s world of glamour began to tumble down and fall apart around him. It wasn’t a movie-breaker, but it did feel a bit cliché to throw in such a sequence, especially since Ben’s character changed so much. I guess that was one of the points, but it just seemed like something he could have avoided…although the ending probably would have never come had it not happened. Still, the rest of the movie felt above-par and engaging, it’s a shame its weakest moment was one that was required.
All of the actors in the film did a knock out job in their roles, although Spacey is often credited for the one holding the film together, I have to respectfully disagree. True, he’s awesome and his character is often the one everyone gravitates towards, but he was barely in the film. His character was a giant ass and by the end of the film you genuinely hated him. It was interesting, however, that once the characters “made up” and played nice with one another again, I didn’t have a problem welcoming him back in and the twist at the end of the film actually had me feeling sorry for him until I remembered what he did to Ben.
Bosworth, Yoo and Lapira also had knock-out performances as the rest of the team. Although their parts were small, Yoo and Lapira often drew the scenes toward them when they were the focus, Yoo especially. Bosworth was also strong as the leading lady of the film, although I had trouble believing her relationship with Ben at times. I’m not entirely sure what it was about their interactions with one another, but none of it really seemed real. It wasn’t a problem with Bosworth’s acting; it was more just the two characters themselves seemed completely incompatible.
Also worth mentioning was the scenery and directing style of the film. The scenery was so rich and beautiful in the film and I was absolutely stunned by how the film was shot. Maybe it was just the Vegas lights, but everything was so vivid looking. On top of that director Robert Luketic did a great job with setting up the sequences, especially the ones involving the actual Black Jack tables.
Having said all of that, however, the film’s finale really does hinder it from being at truly great movie. I don’t know how else it would end, but something about it just seemed unsatisfactory, but knowing it was all based on true events make it easier to swallow. I do feel they could have thrown in more from the actual stories of the individuals, rather than just relying on the same ol’ thriller tracks that this film seemed to follow. Regardless, it’s an entertaining ride and comes Recommended. Don’t expect too much in terms of substance, but its fun to watch at least. Although I will say while writing this review I thought of a half dozen plot points that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s what happens with films like this.
21 arrives on Blu-ray from Sony in full glory. A standard Blu-ray casing is given with a disc with a big “21” printed on it; an insert for only the Blu-ray format is included. Menus for the set are simple and easy to navigate and have full pop-up functions during the play of the movie. There isn’t anything else fancy about this Blu-ray release (no reflective foil insert or slipcase)…on the outside, anyway. It’s the disc contents that are the most exciting.
The video and audio for the film is quite a nice mix. The 1080p AVC encoded 2.40:1 video transfer looks and sounds fantastic, with plenty of great colors popping off of the screen. The Vegas landscape lights up the view when we’re taken to the strip and the subdued pallet of MIT looks great as well. The usual amount of film grain is present, but overall the film looks wonderful. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track sounds fantastic, filling all of the speakers with sound and thudding the room with the music and surroundings of the film. There’s not a lot of true “action” in the film, but the various sound effects more than compensate in the LFE department. Also included for the non-English fans is a French and Portuguese TrueHD track as well as regular Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Thai and Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese Traditional, Chinese Simplified, Indonesian, Korean and Thai.
While the set comes with a Blu-ray exclusive “21 Virtual Blackjack Game” feature, it’s part of the BD-LIVE format and unfortunately that doesn’t go live until July 22nd, so I can’t review that or comment on how well it works. What I can comment on, however, are all of the extras which are presented in glorious 1080p. The extras, while short, are worth watching if you’re interested in the game of Black Jack and the general production of the film.
The first featurette is “21: The Advantage Player” (5:25), which starts out as sounding like it’s going to be some stupid game, but instead Bosworth, Sturgess, Yoo and Lapira take us on a tour of how to play Black Jack and count cards. While most seem to be reading off of scripts, Yoo seems to know an awful lot about the game and never seems to be reading off of anything, which seems a bit odd, but he’s definitely the most confident in this featurette. Bosworth and Sturgess just seem lost at times.
Next up is “Basic Strategy: A complete Film Journal” (24:48), which, while sounding fancy, is really just the making-of for the film. There are some cool cast interviews here, but other than that it’s your generic making-of. “Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life” (7:08) shows off the lifestyles of the Vegas rollers that we saw a bit of in the films “We’re buying expensive things!” sequence.
Finally we have the Filmmaker Commentary with director Robert Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca. The trio make for a airy and entertaining listen, as they don’t focus solely on the production of the film (although there is, of course, that too), but also on the ambience of Vegas itself and the money personally lost while filming. Everyone is in a good mood, as can be expected as the film debuted #1 at the box office shortly before this commentary was recorded. Overall an entertaining and engaging listen that’s as easy to listen to as the film was to watch.
Overall this is a solid release and one that comes Recommended. It’s one of those films that can be easily re-watched as the tension it creates early on in the film can still be felt on repeat viewings. While it won’t blow you away with a witty script or brilliant acting, it’s just an all around good time.
21 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.