Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jim Sturgess, Kate
Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Spacey
Director: Robert Luketic
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Features: See Review
Length: 123 Minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2008
“Winner, winner, chicken dinner!”
21 has crossed my desk at a particularly opportune time…my fiancée and I are two months away from our first trip to Las Vegas, so naturally, movies with Vegas settings are particularly appealing to us right about now.
And 21 carries the additional curiosity of being based on a true story of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students and their professor concocting a brilliant card counting scheme and taking the city for a fortune, proving that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, except for questionably gotten gains.
How much the story mirrors actual events is something I can’t say for sure, other than the term ‘loosely based’ wasn’t coined without reason. What I CAN say is that the movie follows a methodical method to a tee, in terms of the scheme and the actual plot development. There’s a certain fascination in watching some brilliant people doing in casinos what we all dream of doing. What’s missing is a sense of fun.
Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is a brilliant student with big dreams and an ability to perform complex equations in his head. He is about to graduate MIT, and his eye is on Harvard Medical School. He gets in, but paying the $300,000 tuition is another story. His one hope is the highly competitive single scholarship given out to one student per year that would cover his entire ride at Harvard.
Or is it his only chance? One of his professors, Micky Rosa (Spacey, who also co-produced the film), senses something special about young Ben, and invites him to join a secret group of students he has hand selected for their math abilities and their unemotional composure. They head out to Vegas on weekends, and rake in huge amounts of cash by counting cards at the blackjack table.
Their system is intricate…in addition to being good with numbers, the students utilize hand signals and code words to give each other the tools they need to win. They use disguises and fake IDs to work their magic. Most importantly, they follow the rule set down by Rosa: never gamble; play the sure hands and sure tables.
Card counting isn’t illegal, but casinos tend to frown on it harshly, as represented by security man Cole (Fishburne). His company is on the way out as more and more places are opting for a new face recognition software tool. But he’s not done yet, and in Ben’s success, he begins to suspect something rotten is in the cards.
There is the obligatory romance between Jim and Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a beautiful student who would rather focus on the task at hand than have a Vegas fling, but you don’t have to be a card counter to know how that hand will eventually play out. Or to know that the film will eventually tell us that winning streaks only last so long, and can often come to a halt with devastating results. Have I spoiled anything by telling you all of this…or did I just confirm what you already suspected?
Numbers is the name of the game, and this film is by-the-numbers to a fault. The students’ method of winning is so well-constructed that all we are watching is a plan unfold. Unlike another movie with gambling at its core, Casino Royale, 21 lacks the suspense a good gambling movie can convey. You never feel that the whole story and people’s lives hang in the balance on a single turn of a card. As I mentioned, the best word is “fascination”, like someone who’s interested in machinery watching a machine work. You can appreciate the details, but there’s no question about whether or not the machine is going to do what it was designed for.
Jim Sturgess makes for a likeable Everyman…that is, if Everyman was a mathematical genius. He gives the movie its only real emotional core. We don’t get close enough to anyone else. Many of the students don’t seem all that involved with the action...I can't even remember most of their names. It comes down to Ben and Rosa, and Rosa watches like a chess player contemplating the mate.
The money is big, but the stakes never feel that high. When you get ensconced in casino life as a viewer, you’re not really thinking about Ben getting into med school. In fact, you may be wondering why he even worries about it considering how good he is at card-counting. Oh, yeah…Cole…that’s why.
Director Robert Luketic has done a good job giving us the lights, colors and sounds of Las Vegas, but what he’s failed to do is capture the energy or the excitement. What makes Vegas an appealing movie setting is not the winning, but the risks, and the filmmakers should have taken a few more here and there.
This is a good looking disc from Sony…maybe not quite up to full Blu-ray specifications, but close. The Vegas scenes benefit the most with their light to dark contrast ratios, detail, and eye-popping colors. Away from the fabled city, there is occasionally a little softness and some murkier darker scenes.
Like the video, the Dolby TrueHD audio comes alive mostly in the casinos, where the action is plentiful and the scenes are bigger. Most of the rest of the film is dialogue-oriented, which comes across perfectly well. Dynamic range is fairly good, but not as strong as some.
The extras include a filmmaker commentary featuring Luketic and two of his producers, featurettes on the making of the movie, card counting, and the sets and costumes, plus an exclusive Blu-ray feature: virtual blackjack. It’s fun, but takes a moment to load and then unload, so you might save it for when you’re not actually planning to watch the film.
The odds are in your favor if you’re betting that you’ve seen a better Las Vegas movie than 21. It entertains only as long as it fascinates, but it’s more like a slot machine than a high-stakes card game. It’s only fun to watch when it's paying off.