With all of the online poker playing and card playing that's going on in the world within the last several years, I think that I know why movies surrounding card playing games haven't worked over the same time period. Consider that with movies like The Sting or The Cincinnati Kid, you had compelling characters that helped move a story along in a film, or the direction behind films of that nature were more than adequate. When you don't have the capable direction or the charismatic cast, you have a movie about card playing that nobody wants to (or should) see. And in the case of 21, you have a movie about card playing, set against some very tired plot choices.
The story itself is inspired by six students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who devised a plan to count cards at blackjack games, and would routinely go to Las Vegas to win hundreds of thousands of dollars from the desert casinos. Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool) and Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in The Fire) wrote the screenplay which Robert Luketic (Monster-in-Law) directs. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe) is a student at M.I.T. who is trying to pay for a spot in med school, and because he has a unique knack for statistics and math, he catches the eye of a professor (Kevin Spacey, Recount). The professor, named Micky Rosa, invites him to join a secret club of those who have developed a system to beat blackjack in Las Vegas. Micky, Ben and the kids go to Vegas frequently, and while Ben initially joins for the sake of paying off med school, he becomes enamored with the lifestyle in Vegas and develops a thing with Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth, Superman Returns).
However, just like a lot of things that are too good to be true, Ben's success turns out to be. Ben gets too involved with gambling, his relationship with Jill hits the skids, he lies to his friends and family about what he does, and a casino employee named Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix) is hot on his heels and wants to catch him or Micky as well and fix their respective little wagons but good. And the gravitas that Fishburne and Spacey bring to the film doesn't save the fact that the story and its execution are delivered like wet farts.
It doesn't help matters that the guy who's supposed to carry the film, Sturgess, simply doesn't look like a figure worth identifying with. And most of the other people in the film don't possess any real charisma either. Luketic and the creators of the film expect you to be so in love with the fact that these kids from M.I.T. were making a ton of money, that the introduction of an antagonist and some shoddy storytelling devices could all be overlooked, but it's simply not the case. If you don't have a two-time Oscar winner and a separate Oscar nominee in the "grown-up" roles, this movie probably doesn't make over $150 million worldwide, and the film doesn't see as much publicity as it does at the front of every Sony Blu-ray disc. But it does, and I'm still trying to figure out why so many people paid to see it as they did.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 2.40 widescreen presentation of 21 uses the MPEG-4 codec, and the film was originally shot using the Panavision Genesis digital camera, so it provides quite the spiffy image. Figures and motion in the shadows translates with picture perfect clarity, and since blacks are quite inky, it's quite a thing to marvel at. The neon lights of Vegas never looked better, there are no distortion or pixilation issues to be found, and while the image itself doesn't present too much depth, there's enough there to maintain a multidimensional look for the entire film. While I didn't care all that much for the film, watching it made it a slightly less bitter pill to swallow.
You know what really grinds my gears about a dialogue-driven film that uses a PCM uncompressed soundtrack, or a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround option, like the one 21 uses? It's that, while the dialogue sounds clear and unwavering, there's nothing to drive any real use of the surround speakers or the subwoofer. The early scenes when the gang headed out to Vegas were the only ones to speak of that used the low end, but immersion was non-existent. The songs in the film (of which there are a few) are replicated well also, but the soundtrack is really nothing more than capable.
Starting off with the BD-exclusive material, you get a blackjack game which you can play using a variety of aliases, and you can make money, which hopefully the "Pit Boss" won't notice. It's a pretty straightforward game. After the BD-Live enabled option, Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca share their thoughts on this little ditty in the shape of a commentary track. They discuss the casting process and how the story fell into their laps and working with icons like Spacey. There are some production recollections and individual shot breakdowns, but aside from some trips with their technical advisors, by and large the track is pretty boring. Following that are three featurettes, the first being "The Advantage Player" (5:25), in which the cast discuss the origins of blackjack and of the card counting method devised by the M.I.T. Six, so that information is valuable. "Basic Strategy" (24:48) covers more on the production itself, with interviews from the cast and crew, and the real-life figures talk about how the story came together. The cast also share their requisite thoughts on the story and their peers, and the look and style of the film is given some time as well. The piece overall is blandish and not unlike a whole host of "making of" pieces you've seen before. "Money Plays" (7:08) basically examines the locations, wardrobe and set design in another uninspired piece. Trailers for Blu-ray, Prom Night, The Other Boleyn Girl, Married Life, Vantage Point, Made of Honor, Persepolis, Across the Universe, Men In Black and the first season of Damages are the last extras to speak of.
The good news is that 21 features an interesting story based on historical events, but the bad news is that the film is a little too arrogant for its own good and at 123 minutes is at least 25 minutes too long, so it's not very effective. The performances feel flat and not worth it, and despite some pretty good technical specs, it just doesn't hold up enough to purchase. In the interim, rent this and you should be just fine, if you're so inclined.