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Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) has been accepted at Harvard Medical School but his grades alone aren’t going to get him there. He has two choices: win a scholarship which has fierce competition, or come up with $300,000 to pay his own way.

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In an interview for the scholarship, Ben’s told that his application needs to stand out from the crowd and that with his zero life experience it’s just not going to happen. Enter Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) Ben’s math professor, who notices that Ben may be a whizz with numbers and is able to keep a level head under pressure.

Rosa introduces Ben to his secret side project—a blackjack team consisting of some of his more advanced students, who regularly take trips to Las Vegas and use their card counting skills to win big and live large. Ben is reluctant at first, but when persuaded by team member Jill (Kate Bosworth), the girl he has a crush on anyway, he’s soon lured into the world of playing the odds and beating the casinos.

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  21 is actually based on some true life events where a bunch of clever kids took to Vegas and fleeced the casinos using their card counting abilities, though I’m fairly sure the real life story was never this glossy or pretty. From the get go 21 gets you involved, you’re wowed by Ben’s math skills and you totally buy into these kids adventures in Vegas and believe that this stuff could and indeed did happen. The filmmakers present the ins and outs fairly well, using lots of tricks to involve you in how this scheme works at the tables, though I personally feel a step was skipped in the explanation of basics for people who don’t understand the game. There are a lot of flashy highly detailed shots of cards going down on tables and close ups of eyes and signals between friends and a real sense that this is all very controlled and planned out to the finest detail. It’s a shame this amount of focus wasn’t used on the characters.

Seriously, other than Ben joining the team in the first place because a hot girl asked him to and having an understanding that this character needs to raise a lot of money to live his dream, I don’t think there was one moment where I genuinely believed the motivation of any one character in this whole affair. I didn’t buy the relationship of the friends, I didn’t buy the relationship between Ben and Jill, I certainly didn’t buy the event that made this whole thing go sour and as for the motivations of Spacey’s character in the final act, it was weak at best.
 
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Despite a solid set up, 21 just ends up suffering for being sloppy and I predicted the end a long time before I think I was meant to because of it. The heavy-handed explanation of Larry Fishburne’s character and how he conveniently has prior knowledge of Spacey’s character was about as subtle as a brick and to have that followed by some of the most stupid u-turns in the characters' behaviour to the game at hand was ridiculous. We are led to believe that the idea was to stay under the radar, keeping it low key to avoid detection, yet the guy that taught them this may as well have had a neon light over his head with the words ‘I'm winning a lot of money everyone—look at me!’

21 is by no means a turkey and there have been far worse card movies, but like many other movies of this ilk, it just suffers from painting the characters up as the cleverest of the clever and then giving us absolutely no believable reason for it all falling apart, other than what seems to be the age old ‘we’re in the last act of a movie, we need to mix it up’ decision, which not only undermined everything that got me into the movie in the first place but just left me feeling nothing for the turn of events.

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Video


Presented in 2.40:1 ratio, 21’s video presentation has moments of being exactly what we should all expect from the Blu-ray format as a standard. The opening scenes set in Boston are for the most part, stunning. The colours are bright, the detail is high and the natural lighting just makes everything come to life. It’s everything that shows off the difference in high definition images. Unfortunately I can’t say I was as impressed with the darker interior scenes in the Las Vegas portions of the film. The bright neon lights in the casinos look great and the wider shots remain detailed, but the darkness creeps in on the closer shots and skin-tones begin to look a little patchy and un-natural. Sadly with these scenes nothing ever seems quite as pretty or as impressive as it was earlier in the movie.

Audio


I got pretty distracted by the audio mix throughout 21. Any scenes that had music either as the main presence or even as a background element just seemed unbalanced. I couldn’t work out if the bass was too over-powering, or if the overall sound set up was too hollow, but something was wrong and no matter how I tweaked it I was never satisfied. Most of the dialogue seemed clear enough, unless there was loud music within the scene and even though it was still fine there was a slight hum to it. Admittedly it could probably go unnoticed but once I knew it was there it niggled at my senses. Overall there’s nothing inherently wrong with the sound mix here, but there’s something a little off with it just bugged the hell out of me.

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Extras


To kick off, there’s a commentary, which is from the director Robert Luketic and two of the movie's producers, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, which was pretty bland. It’s a shame the other producers, Kevin Spacey and Brett Ratner, didn’t contribute as they might have made this interesting. Next up, there’s quite a nice explanation from all the actors in the blackjack team (except Spacey) called ‘The Advantage Player’ (5:25) explaining the basics of the game and brief details on card counting—all pretty interesting stuff.

‘Basic Strategy’ (24.48) is essentially just a making of. It starts strong with some details about the real life events but soon turns into the generic re-telling of what you’ve just watched in the movie set up and then there’s ‘Money Plays’ (7:08), which seems to be stuff they had left over from the making of. It’s vague, unfocused and feels like a bit of an afterthought in all honesty.

A surprisingly nice addition was ‘Virtual Blackjack’. I usually hate these little games they include on DVD releases, but this Blu-ray attempt was quite impressive. You get a video tutorial and a very easy to understand set up for the actual game. It’s actually quite a nice companion piece to the movie and whilst my feelings on the pointless inclusions of games on movie discs haven’t changed, I still enjoyed it.

There was also a Blu-ray live option on here, but it kept erroring when selecting it so I didn’t get to see what it had to offer.

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Overall


21 had a strong start and a good idea but ultimately I left the movie disappointed and really not bothered by what I’d just seen. The characters are thin, the story unfolds in a very typical fashion and all in all it just made me miss the Kevin Spacey that used to promise more from a movie. I mean seriously, has he done anything memorable since 2001?

21 offers a pretty standard Blu-ray release with throw away extras and a transfer that has its moments but I can’t say it did anything to warrant repeat viewings from me and if you’re into card movies there are a hell of a lot better ones out there.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.


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