Sony // 2008 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 28th, 2008
When you change the rules, you change the game.
A bunch of MIT smart-asses find a way to make hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards. This is their highly fictionalized story.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) has a fat brain and is aiming to get into Harvard Medical School once he graduates from MIT. But there's one thing standing in his way -- the massive cost. Unable to pull together the 300,000 bones he needs to get into the program, he desperately seeks an alternative way to generate cash. The opportunity presents itself when he's inducted into a top secret card counting crew, headed by MIT professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), blackjack player extraordinaire.
Mickey and the gang tell Ben about their strategy, the signals, the positions, the methods, and head off to Vegas to earn their fortune. And earn they do, scoring huge wins each time out. Ben gets into the lifestyle, which includes lounging poolside, two-fisting expensive drinks, ignoring his nerd friends and banging the girl of his dreams (Kate Bosworth). But then things get prickly and Ben leans a Very Important Lesson when a Vegas security goon (Laurence Fishburne) punches him in his stupid face.
When I popped this disc into the old PS3, I had expectations of being marginally entertained and getting exposed to a world I knew little about. I was familiar with the term "card counting" and had heard about the book Bringing Down the House on which the film was based. But that was it. How these guys were able to work the system intrigued me, and there seemed to be decent acting chops associated with the production. However, it wasn't long into the runtime that I came to a simple realization: this movie was annoying the crap out of me.
Set aside the lame love story, the breakdowns in common sense to generate contrived conflict (Exhibit A: What dumb-ass stores $300,000 in the drop-down ceiling of his dorm room?! Exhibit B: Who throws away a job making $50K a weekend because he's drunk and jealous?!), the painful melodrama between a guy and his super-nerd BFFs, the humorless script, and the tacked-on Ocean's 11 finale, and you're left with the biggest problem of the whole film: Not one character is likable.
Ben is supposedly our protagonist, but if anyone reading this is willing to say that they were rooting for this conceited little MIT pustule who so smugly traipses around Vegas like he is the bee's knees while snookering a girl that looks like Kate Bosworth into revealing carnal knowledge to him to not get his face caved in by @#$%&%$%#'n Morpheus, you are lying. I just wasn't on board with this guy. And his supporting characters were just as irritating, from the painfully cool spotters to Kevin Spacey's Mickey, a dude who is absent from the film for long periods of time but pops in just in time to spit out some snappy repartee and occasionally sneer.
Add to that, though there was plenty of card-playing in this (overlong) film, I never felt like I was really seeing the drama of the card-counting. Aside from an exposition-filled training sequence the actual mechanics of the scheme never seemed expounded upon and, as a result, there was never any weight to the blackjack sequences. Flashy montages and a narration by Sturgess felt more like "telling" than "showing," you know?
Enough about what I didn't like about this disc and on to what I did. First off, this is the first Blu-ray that I've seen that is equipped with BD-live. The feature? A virtual Blackjack game that substantially may not be different from Freeware you'd find on mid-90s laptop but looks slick and allows high-scorers to ride the leaderboards. It may not be the sexiest high-def extra, but the software shows promise. Other extras include three decent featurettes: "21: The Advantage Player," with the cast going in-depth about how to count cards, "Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal," a holistic making-of documentary and "Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life," a look at all the sweet bling Vegas high-rollers enjoy (costuming, locations, props, etc.). Lastly, a happy-with-themselves filmmakers commentary.
On the technical end, audio and video are both solid. The 2.40:1 widescreen is a looker, pushing a rich color palette, ranging from the neon glitz of Vegas to the cold, urban tones of Boston, the latter striking me as more eye-pleasing. While lacking the sheen of other high-def titles, 21 on Blu-ray is still an improvement over its SD brethren and works its magic best when the color levels are at their most diverse. The TrueHD tracks (English, French, Portuguese) are winners, landing with force when the aggressive score kicks in. Lots of thump to be heard. Beyond these moments, we're talking mainly dialogue, but the audio is crisp.
The high-def specs are good -- just not good enough to compensate for a disappointing movie.
The accused busts.
Review content copyright © 2008 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Thai)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Virtual Blackjack
* Original DVD Verdict Review