Based upon the non-fiction novel by Ben Mezrich ("Bringing Down the House"), "21" takes rather fascinating material and manages to make a passable movie out of one that had the potential to be great. The picture, directed by "Legally Blonde" director Robert Luketic, focuses on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a 21-year-old with the smarts and the skills to do well at Boston's MIT. However, despite good grades, he just can't get what it really takes - some serious money along the lines of $300k - to get into Harvard Med.
While he can't seem to figure out a way to get past his financial difficulties, someone else figures it all out for him: Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) takes notice of Ben's extraordinary math skills and, soon enough, Ben finds himself granted access to Rosa's secretive gambling (more specifically, card counting) society, made up of Rosa and a scrappy group of students, including Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira), Fisher (Jacob Pitts) and the girl Ben's had his eyes on, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth).
While Ben initially decides against joining the operation, he's pulled in both by his financial situation and the beautiful Jill. The group trains intensely, even coming up with their own language. It's all working up towards the eventual trip to Vegas to work the big casinos - complete with brand new identities. While card counting is technically legal, the casinos don't exactly take well to it if you're caught, as Ben and his friends soon learn.
In Vegas, Ben finds himself increasingly sucked into the neon town, letting his initial goal of only going there to make enough for tuition slip through his fingers as more and more money falls into his hands. As Ben becomes more and more successful, things with Jill also heat up - but Ben's success also results in Rosa turning from business partner into an enemy.
While "21" starts slowly, it eventually gets going as it explores Ben and friends feeling as if they've got the world at their fingertips. However, the rug is ripped out from under them when a security official (Laurence Fishburne) becomes suspicious of Jim and his team. One of the film's problems is the fact that he has every right to be suspicious - there have been some changes from the book, and they do include characters not always acting as bright as their expensive education would indicate. Jim, for example, hides his massive winnings in the ceiling of his dorm room.
The film has a series of other concerns as well, such as the fact that Bosworth's bland performance. While I've liked the actress in other roles, this is a one-dimensional performance and she generates little chemistry with Sturgess. Sturgess fares somewhat better portraying a man losing himself amidst the glamour and power he's found himself in, but it's still not quite the commanding performance that the movie needed to carry the story. The film's best performance is from Spacey, who does an excellent job with Rosa's slide from friend to foe.
Additionally, one has to wonder whether there couldn't have been a better - or possibly much better - choice than Luketic, who doesn't manage to give Vegas too much in the way of glitz or visual style. For a movie about a team of students working their way through Vegas and making a fortune, Luketic also disappoints in that he just can't seem to get the momentum going consistently, as the pacing of the film could best be described as stop-and-start. Cutting 10-15 minutes out of the two hour running time may have helped to pick up the pace at least somewhat.
"21" remains a watchable affair with some mild positives and mild negatives (and really, there could have been a better adaptation of the material - there didn't need to be as many changes to the original material as there is here.) I could hope that other filmmakers will take a try at adapting this material sometime down the road, but I think the odds are against it.
VIDEO: "21" is presented by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC). The film's rather low-key visual style is presented reasonably well on this Blu-Ray release, as sharpness and detail were generally very good, save for a few moments of mild softness. While not demo-level in quality, the picture did sport reasonably good depth and fine detail during most scenes.
The picture did encounter some minor concerns, including a couple of slight moments of edge enhancement and some artifacting during a few sequences. On a positive note, the print appeared pristine and the flaws spotted didn't cause much distraction. Colors tended to look muted, especially in the Boston scenes. Flesh tones looked accurate, and black level remained solid. This was a fine presentation, but lacked a certain snap.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. I wasn't entirely thrilled with the film's sound mix, which uses quite a few sound effects during the card sequences. While the occasional whoosh or something along those lines is fine, it's too much here - both overused and calling too much attention to themselves when they are heard during the Vegas scenes. Otherwise, this is largely a dialogue (and occasionally music)-driven and forward-heavy soundtrack. Audio quality is fine, with clear dialogue. Audio quality is fine, but again, I just wasn't crazy about the sound mix, which tries too hard to jazz up scenes.
EXTRAS: director Robert Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca offer up an audio commentary for the movie.
We also get three featurettes: "21 - The Advantage Player" (the actors talking about card strategies), "Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal" (a general overview of the production) and "Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life" (sets and locations) as well as trailers for other Sony titles and an exclusive virtual blackjack game.
Final Thoughts: "21" offers a couple of fine performances from Spacey and Sturgess, but Luketic can't sustain much intensity and the material has been changed for the worse from the original novel. It's watchable and mildly entertaining, but the story could have been made into a more compelling film. The Blu-Ray offers very good video quality, mixed audio quality and a decent supply of supplemental features. Rent it.
The Film C+