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21 (2008)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 7/22/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Audio: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 7/21/2008

I haven't taken a scientific poll, but I would have to assume that most people watch movies for entertainment. And of that population, I would hope that many view films as a means of escape from their everyday lives. Not in a delusional way, of course, but as a way to momentarily travel to a different place or see things that they can't see elsewhere. In short, we see everyday life everyday and we want movies to show us something different. That's what makes 21 appealing. Much of the film may seem familiar or even predictable, but the story at the core will take the viewer inside of a world that few have ever seen.

Jim Sturgess stars in 21 as Ben Campbell, a student at M.I.T. Ben is a whiz at math and robotics, but his dream is to go to Harvard Medical School. However, he can't afford the tuition and he's resting his hopes on a scholarship. Ben's math abilities are noticed by Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who approaches Ben with an unusual proposition. Rosa oversees a team of other students -- Jill (Kate Bosworth), Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira), and Fisher (Jacob Pitts) -- who count cards to succeed at Blackjack. The team has worked out a series of signals and codes to do as well as possible at the game, and they travel to Las Vegas on a regular basis to play. Ben is flattered by the offer, but turns it down. However, Jill is able to persuade him to join. Ben is incredibly nervous at first, but he convinces himself that he will do it just for the money for school. As it turns out, Rosa's instincts about Ben are correct, and he's a whiz at 21. But, Ben finds that he really likes winning, and once he starts, it's difficult to stop.

Unlike many movies (trust me), the pros and cons of 21 are very easy to map out. You could stop the film at around the 40-minute mark and ask viewers what will occur during the remainder of the movie, and I would guess that most would be very close to the right answer. The story in 21 contains some twists and turns, but the skeleton of the film is something which we've seen many, many times before. Ben is a normal guy who gets involved in something which is way over his head. There are beautiful women, lots of money, bad buys, greed, and corruption. Save for the final twist, I don't think that anything in the main story surprised me.

However, Screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Alan Loeb have poured some very interesting characters and situations into that familiar mold. 21 is based on a book by Ben Mezrich which profiled six real M.I.T. students which did exactly what is detailed in the film and it's this story which makes 21 compelling. Movies about casinos and gambling usually involve slick high-rollers or losers looking for that one big win. Here, we have five students at one of the top colleges in the country and their math professor. All of them have bright futures, and they see this as simply a fun way to make money. They approach the game like a math project and, being the competitive students that they are, push themselves to see how well they can do. Into this world comes the naive and hopeful Jim. While it's difficult to identify with Jim due to the fact that he's a math whiz who aspires to be a doctor, he is the link to the audience, as we travel with him into a land where people can be whoever they want to be and fortunes are made and lost in minutes. Plenty of viewers will have been to Vegas and gambled, but 21 shows us gambling as a high-stakes team sport.

21 comes from Director Robert Luketic, who is best known for Legally Blonde. Along with the compelling story, he infuses the characters with real personalities, save for Kianna, who remains a blank slate. While Sturgess and Bosworth are solid in the lead roles, Spacey steals the film, and his portrayal of Rosa as a smart-ass brought a much needed sense of humor to the film. We also get laughs from Choi, who is a kleptomaniac.

I found 21 to be far more compelling than I had ever expected, but the movie did leave me with some frustrating questions. Why doesn't Ben ever mention a student loan? Why go to Vegas all the time when there are casinos all over the country? Why would Ben blow the money on extravagances when he needs it for school? These head-scratches aside, 21 is an entertaining film which shows us that even those who’ve got it made want to make more.

21 says “hit me” on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The film was shot in HD, so the image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain or defects from the source material. The colors look very good, especially the bright hues of Vegas. However, the image is somewhat dark at times, and has a flat appearance in some shots. The DVD contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. There is some very nice stereo separation here, and the in-film music sounds fantastic. The surround sound effects emphasize the action in Vegas and the music delivers a steady stream of subwoofer thumps.

The 21 DVD contains a full-house of extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Robert Luketic, Producers Mike De Luca and Dana Brunetti. This is a good chat, as the trio brings us a wealth of information about the making of the film. They speak in depth about the background story and the locations, while asking brining in the casting and some technical issues. "The Advantage Player" (5 minutes) traces the history of Blackjack and gives an overview of strategy of 21. "Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal" (25 minutes) starts with comments from Ben Mezrich, who wrote the source book, and an actual M.I.T. student who was involved in the real-life deal. From there, we learn about the conception of the film and get comments from the actors, who talk about their characters. There is then a discussion of the shooting of the film and the locations. "Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life" (7 minutes) examines the look of the film and the juxtaposition of Boston and Las Vegas. The final extra is the very confusing set-top game, "21 Virtual Blackjack".

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has also brought 21 to Blu-ray Disc. The film is again letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 28 Mbps. This transfer looks great, as the image is very clear and sharp, showing no grain or source-print defects. The colors of Vegas look fantastic here, and the transfer doesn’t suffer from the dark look of the DVD, nor is it overly bright. The image has a nice depth and the image is very detailed -- we can see every blemish on the actor’s faces! The Disc features a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.8 Mbps. The track delivers clear dialogue and sound effects. Being a drama, I wasn’t expecting much from the sound, but it certainly delivers. Stereo and surround sound effects are abundant, and the in-film music simply fills the speakers, reflecting how the lifestyle is washing over Ben. The subwoofer effects aren’t as generous, but they arrive during some key scenes when our cast is in trouble. Overall, a solid Blu-ray presentation.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long