Sony // 2008 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // July 10th, 2008
When you change the rules, you change the game.
Excellent performances almost make up for a shallow script in Robert Luketic's gambling drama 21, a somewhat different take on the traditional casino heist story.
Based on the book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich, the flick introduces us to Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe), one of the most gifted students at MIT. Ever since he was a kid Ben always wanted to go to Harvard med school, and now that he's about to graduate, he finally gets a shot at fulfilling his lifelong ambition. Getting into Harvard is so much a problem for Ben, but when he finds out that tuition and living expenses alone will cost him a whopping $300,000, his hopes are shattered.
But then one night, Ben's life suddenly takes a drastic turn when his physics professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, Superman Returns) approaches him with an offer he simply cannot resist: earning astronomical sums of money by counting cards at Blackjack in Las Vegas' hottest casinos. Doubtful at first, Ben finally decides to join Micky's team, and just a few weeks later, he finds himself traveling to Sin City during weekends to make more moola than he could've ever imagined. That is, until he starts breaking the rules.
In Vegas, you can become anyone you want, at least until you can't keep the numbers straight anymore and everything starts to spiral out of control. That pretty much sums up what 21 is all about. Although I wouldn't call it a total disaster, Robert Luketic's latest flick is just one of those films failing to properly execute a brilliant original idea. Essentially, the main story line focuses on the rise and fall of a talented, ambitious student who finds a way to fulfill his dream but eventually takes it one step too far. It's the classic tale of an innocent kid who blindly embraces a new and dangerous lifestyle without seeing the obvious risks.
Right from the get-go, the direction of the film's plot is as clear as the rules Ben has to follow if he's to earn his money by counting cards at Blackjack. All he's got to do really is keep emotions out of the game and never gamble. Obviously, Ben adores his new life so much that he slowly succumbs to all the fun and starts to bend the rules without paying attention to the consequences. After all, making the choice between the grayish, dull Boston or the colorful, exciting Vegas is an easy one, right? Well, it turns out Ben is not as clever as we thought.
Up to this point, 21 still has a lot going for it. While the setup of the film's main intrigue during the first hour is interesting to follow, it's the second half that tears everything apart. Peter Seinfeld and Allan Loeb's script doesn't do justice to the original idea, offering viewers nothing but sloppy dialogue and an obvious lack of action. What is refreshing to watch in the beginning soon settles into a predictable routine, leaving barely any room for new ideas. Instead, the main characters act like a bunch of over-motivated jerks who don't have anything better to do than pursue their own interests and turn against each other. The idea of the growing pressure causing some escalation inside the team sounds compelling indeed, but the script treats this entire concept in such a superficial way that it's impossible for us to care about anything or anyone we see on the screen.
From there, it pretty much all goes downhill. In a desperate attempt to raise the dramatic effect and inject the story with some suspense, the plot introduces several simplistic subplots that do more damage than good. Whether it's a romance between Ben and one of his teammates or a twist involving a ruthless casino head of security (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix), the few surprises we encounter throughout the movie fall flat because of a clear lack of development. I stop here because I certainly don't want to spoil it all, but I guess it's safe to say that the second hour of the film is quite inferior to the first part.
Despite the obvious weakness of the script, Luketic tried his best to keep his film as fast-paced as possible, and I have to admit he succeeded in doing so. 21 is still quite enjoyable to watch, primarily because Luketic did a great job at creating a series of well-structured scenes and smooth transitions that make the film at least visually captivating. A sizzling soundtrack and the use of sleek colors to set up some vibrant scenes in Las Vegas do pay off in the end.
The cast is also one of the film's assets, and Jim Sturgess delivers an excellent performance as the lead actor. I didn't see him in Across the Universe, but judging by his commitment in playing Ben Campbell, I'm sure he has a fabulous career ahead of him. In the role of one of Ben's teammates, Kate Bosworth not only looks good, but she also shares a solid chemistry with Sturgess. And of course there's the great Kevin Spacey, who pretty much hits all the right notes at whatever he does. Playing a menacing MIT professor is just about right up his alley. On the other hand, Laurence Fishburne's performance goes unnoticed.
For a standard edition, the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks pretty good, delivering a sharp picture quality throughout. Especially the electrifying sequences in Las Vegas look stunning. There's also plenty of music, noise and dialogue in the movie, and the audio transfer delivers the goods just as much.
The first disc of this deluxe edition includes the feature film and a commentary by Robert Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca. Most of what they chat about is pretty interesting if you're willing to find out more about the shooting of the movie in Boston and Las Vegas, but they also discuss how the project came into being and how everyone of them ended up getting on board. Besides one of those digital copies of the film, disc two includes three featurettes. In "The Advantage Player," members of the cast briefly explain the rules of Blackjack and dig a little deeper into the basic strategy. "Basic Strategy" is a 24-minute behind-the-scenes look that covers everything from development of the script to shooting on location in Vegas. Featuring plenty of interviews and lots of footage from the sets, this is definitely the documentary to look out for on the second disc. Wrapping up the bonus material is an informative seven-minute clip about the film's production design.
For the most part, 21 is exciting to watch, but the mediocre script ruins the film's chance to score much higher. Better luck next time.
Guilty. That's what you get for not playing your cards right.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Filmmakers' Commentary
* Digital Copy of Film
* Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal
* Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life Featurette
* The Advantage Player Featurette
* Official Site