21 is a new blackjack movie from Columbia pictures, and the DVD gives viewers more than enough Las Vegas to last a while. Loosely based on the book Bringing Down the House by reporter Ben Mezrich about real-life MIT students who won millions of dollars at Vegas Casinos by counting blackjack cards, 21 (the number you're aiming for when you play blackjack) is fun entertainment with a little bit of brains to go with it. There are, indeed, great perfromances and some good writing, but the real star of the film is Sin City, which 21 uses at least as well as any Ocean film.
Ben Campbell (Brit Jim Sturgess) is a Boston native who is drawing near to the end of his time at MIT and looking forward to going to Harvard Medical School. However, the brilliant Ben can't afford the $300 thousand required, so his life is about to fall apart. One of his new professors, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), recognizes Ben's mathematical prowess and recruits him for the team of students that he leads to Las Vegas on the weekends. Ben agrees to count cards with them but just long enough to earn the money he needs for school. He is soon drawn into the thrill of becoming someone else, a high roller, and playing big money in Vegas, and the casino security starts to get wise to the team. Ben doesn't get out of the game when he should, and things come to a head before all is said and done.
The focus is mostly on Campbell, with relatively little actual screen time given to Spacey. However, the ensemble feel of the film holds up well, as the team of genius MIT students is made up of likeable young actors and actresses, including Aaron Yoo (Shia LeBeouf's sidekick in Suburbia) as Choi and Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns) as Jill, Ben's love interest. Spacey, as always is very good when he's around, as one would expect. Laurence Fishburne rounds out the cast as Cole Williams, the Vegas loss prevention expert who is onto the team. Campbell is heading for big things; he has wonderful screen presence. I loved the cast in this film.
As visually flashy as the Hard Rock, 21 has a lot of flair. I liked it, but it got to be too much at times, like with the obviously CG, extreme close-ups of chips and cards being slid around. There is a spectacular opening shot to this film that begins with an aerial shot of Boston and ends with a dolly backwards on the ground. It's mind-blowing, until you listen to the commentary to learn how they did it.
The movie is directed competently by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde). The great production design and cinematography creates a juxtaposition between the cold snow and grey marble of Boston and the rich, neon warmth of Las Vegas. Luketic gets great performances out of everyone, but he takes the standard shortcut a lot: Campbell narrates a large portion of the film, when showing us what's happening would take too long without it. However, a twist at the very end validates the use of narration throughout.
I watched the 2-disc deluxe edition of 21. The standard DVD case comes in a cardboard slip, and the second disc has a free digital copy that you can copy to your PC or PSP.
21's exceptional picture, shot in hi-def, is enhanced perfectly for widescreen TV's. The image replicates the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The colors throughout the movie are very rich, largely due to Russell Carpenter's cinematography. The image is sharp; overall this is a high end DVD. However, some of the movement actually looks a little blurry which I think was a result of the fact that the movie was shot digitally with the Genesis (Superman Returns). But the bright neon lights and eccentrically lit game rooms of Las Vegas casinos lend themselves very well to modern technology, and I would recommend watching this upscaled. That way, the plentiful aerial shots of the Vegas skyline at night might fool you into thinking that you're watching Blu-ray. The black levels are incredibly deep. I could see every freckle on Kate Bosworth's gorgeous face, which was just what I was hoping for. Like it or not, 21 looks beautiful.
The audio on this DVD consists of English, French, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. The surround programming is good, leaving nothing to be desired. A lot of the movie's plentiful music is thrown through the back channels, as well as ambient casino noise. Yes, the movie immerses you in the Vegas experience, which is really the whole point, anyway.
The first disc of this DVD set only has the commentary, but the second disc is chock full of extras.
The commentary includes director Robert Luketic with guests Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, 21's producers. It's nice to hear some humility in Hollywood, as these three guys keep mentioning how lucky they were to get this movie to come together. They cover the standard subjects for a director's commentary about his or her own film, from casting to describing how they did effects. It is an interesting commentary.
The first featurette is called "The Advantage Player," which describes the history of blackjack, and describes how to count cards, whih the film really didn't do. This clip is enhanced for 16x9 TV's and looks great. It is five minutes long.
The second featurette is called "Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal," and it is a well done behind-the-scenes feature, complete with some dramatizations of the stories the filmmakers tell(!). It is 16x9 and anamorphically enhanced. It has the usual on-screen interviews with a lot of people, including one of the original MIT students. This one is 25 minutes long, and highly recommended.
The last featurette is called "Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life." It discusses the difference between the blandness of Boston and the glitz of Vegas. If you like Las Vegas, you'll appreciate this seven-minute feature on production design. I told you this movie existed to cash in on Vegas.
No, 21 is not art, but it is a testament to Hollywood's ability to make likable movies about hot subjects. It looks great, whether you love it or hate it. Kevin Spacey fans might as well check it out, as well as anyone who wants to catch a hot new actor, Campbell, before he's officially as big as James MacAvoy. But the biggest appeal of this movie is definitely the glitz, glamour, and beautiful people of the most intriguing city in the world, Las Vegas. This one gets a "Highly Recommended" based on the quality of the DVD and the entertainment of the movie.