Director : Robert Luketic
Screenplay : Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb (based on the book Bringing Down the House The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Jim Sturgess (Ben Campbell), Kevin Spacey (Micky Rosa), Kate Bosworth (Jill Taylor), Aaron Yoo (Choi), Liza Lapira (Kianna), Jacob Pitts (Jimmy Fisher), Laurence Fishburne (Cole Williams), Jack McGee (Terry), Josh Gad (Miles Connoly), Sam Golzari (Cam), Helen Carey (Ellen Campbell), Jack Gilpin (Bob Phillips)
Although based on real events as recounted in novelist Ben Mezrich’s first nonfiction book Bringing Down the House, the story in 21 has been carefully molded into a nearly perfect specimen of by-the-numbers three-act moviemaking. It takes the basic scenario from Mezrich’s book--a group of MIT math whizzes team up to count cards and take the Vegas blackjack tables for millions--and constructs a story around it using the most important pieces of Hollywood Cinema 101: the reluctant hero, the beautiful love interest, the outright villain, and, most importantly, the narrative arc in which a good character is corrupted but ultimately redeems himself. And, of course, it’s all dolled up with as much Vegas flash as the screen can hold without being burned permanently neon.
None of this is necessarily meant as abject criticism. The term “formulaic” is usually slung as a particularly harsh pejorative, but anyone who loves movies knows that there is something soothing and gratifying about watching a formula well made. It’s the cinematic equivalent of baking: Baking requires that you follow the directions exactly and make sure all the ingredients are used in their correct ratios and are added at the proper time. If done well, it results in something like 21: Exactly what you would expect given the recipe. If you don’t like the recipe to begin with, you won’t like the finished product, no matter how well made.
Our reluctant hero in 21 is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, last seen belting out Beatles tune in Across the Universe), a brilliant but introverted mathlete in his senior year at MIT who wants to get into Harvard Medical School, but doesn’t have the dough. Enter Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a math professor who also secretly coaches a team of MIT student blackjack players and takes them on weekends to Vegas where they run the tables and make off like bandits. Ethical? Hardly. Profitable? Very. But, Ben, being a reluctant, geeky kind of guy, resists the call to Sin City (literally and figuratively) until he is finally wooed by Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), his secret longtime crush. Turns out that Ben has a natural proclivity for both counting cards and adopting the brash Vegas lifestyle, and it isn’t long before he’s sporting designer suits, riding in stretch limos, partying on secret verandas, and otherwise living it up while ignoring his robot-building buddies back at MIT who have no idea about his secret life.
Granted, not all is rosy in the garden of earthly delights, starting with Micky, a true snake in the grass who plays nice and friendly when the money is rolling in, but turns vicious when things go south. At some points it seems like Spacey is dialing in his performance, but when he gets means, he turns on, spitting out insults and threats with measured efficiency. The team is also being watched carefully by Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old-school Vegas security contractor who is on the verge of being replaced by facial recognition software, but ends up being the one who figures out the MIT team’s methods and threatens to shut them down with some backroom face bashing.
If any or all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is, but director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) punches it up with just enough juice to keep it coasting through the final reel, even if you’ve long since figured out how it’s all going to go down. There isn’t much in the way of character depth, especially once you get past Ben and his fall from “I’m just doing this to pay for med school” to “I’m doing this because I like it and I can’t stop.” There are some stabs at exploring the notion of identity crisis, as Ben becomes two different people--one on the MIT campus and one in Vegas--but it’s done with such perfunctory obligation that it doesn’t register as much more than a box on the screenwriting checklist. Still, Sturgess gives a good performance that sells the character and makes us care about him and his travails.
There have been some charges of racism against the film because the real-life students on whom it’s based were all Asian American and the film has replaced them with model-rific Caucasians, relegating Asians to secondary team members (played by Liza Lapira and Aaron Yoo) who do little more than look constantly concerned (Lapira) or provide goofy comic relief (Yoo). There is certainly an argument to be made there, although I’m not sure if this literal whitewashing of the characters reflects filmmakers who are casually racist or filmmakers who assume that their audience is.
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian|
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||July 22, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|21 was shot on the Panavision high-end Genesis digital camera, which replicates a Super 35mm frame, so the straight digital to digital transfer has eliminated any possibilities of print flaws or damage. The resulting 1080p image is great, which a good balance between the cool, relatively desaturated look of the Boston scenes and the bright, glitzy, neon scenes in Vegas. The Genesis is particularly good at picking up shadow detail, and the film’s darker scenes benefit substantially. Although shot digitally, 21 has a nicely filmlike appearance, although its few uses of CGI (such as the precredits sequence) look quite cartoonish. The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is very well used, with strong use of the surround channels to draw you into the hectic world of the casino floor.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary by director Robert Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca is a chummy and sporadically informative affair that will be of interest only to serious fans of the film and those who love listening to anecdotes about gambling in Vegas. For those looking for a general overview of the film’s production and its real-life background, there are three featurettes that together run about 37 minutes. In “The Advantage Player,” cast members explain in quick and concise terms how to count cards, which sounds deceptively easy until you actually try it. “Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal” is not as complete as the title would suggest, but it’s still a good making-of featurette that includes interviews with much of the cast, the director, the producers, and, most interestingly, author Ben Mezrich and Jeff Ma, one of the real-life MIT students who served as a consultant on the film and appears in a brief cameo as a blackjack dealer. Finally, there’s “Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life,” which focuses on the production design by Missy Stewart and the costumes by Luca Mosa. And, for those who don’t want to risk any real money at the blackjack tables, there is a “21 Virtual Blackjack Game” that, unlike most games included with movies, is pretty good.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment