While I've dabbled in gambling at the casinos in the past, I have never been a big gambler. A couple of hundred dollars here or there is about all I'm willing to lose, but I love the thought of gambling, and I love the mathematics behind each of the games. To this day I play a lot of online 'gambling' games like Poker and Blackjack (not for real money, just fun) so when the movie 21 hit my desk I was keen to check the movie out, especially as it was inspired by a true story of some American students getting the better of the casinos by playing Blackjack.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a shy, brilliant M.I.T. student who – needing to pay school tuition – who finds the answers in the cards. He is recruited to join a group of the school’s most gifted students that heads to Vegas every weekend armed with fake identities and the know-how to turn the odds at blackjack in their favour.
With unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) leading the way, they've cracked the code. By counting cards and employing an intricate system of signals, the team can beat the casinos big time. Seduced by the money, the Vegas lifestyle, and by his smart and sexy teammate, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), Ben begins to push the limits. Though counting cards isn't illegal, the stakes are high, and the challenge becomes not only keeping the numbers straight, but staying one step ahead of the casinos' menacing enforcer: Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
Strangely despite being a movie about gambling, and in particular one based on real events, there is a distinct lack of 'real' gambling shown on screen. You see cards flicked around, chips stacking up and people celebrating, but you don't really see as many hands as you would expect. Admittedly Blackjack doesn't usually have the tense moments that other games such as Poker can have (and as was brilliantly portrayed in Casino Royale), but it could have been made much more exciting in 21.
There were a couple of of other things that niggled though, and if you haven't seen the movie you may want to skip these minor spoilers. Why would they remain in a single casino? If the characters had never been caught counting before, they wouldn't be on the biometric scanners that scan faces, so why stay in a single casino. Then there was the problem of cashing the chips. Getting the strippers from the club to cash them in was genius, but why then would Ben and Micky be standing right near them while they're cashing them in... Wouldn't that stand out too?
With TV Shows such as Las Vegas offering plenty of similar story lines, visual glitz and impressive acting it takes a strong movie to stand apart from the small screen, and 21 manages to do just that - just. With several A-list actors this movie manages to drag itself above mediocre to become an entertaining, but also interesting, movie.
With much of the movie set in the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas this was always going to look quite wonderful. Encoded at the films original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 at 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 codec this movie really shows off the benefits of Blu-Ray over traditional DVD.
Colours are bright and pop off the screen at you while the smaller details are retained. Even the darker scenes in the casinos and night clubs have a visual sheen that stands out. The scenes at MIT in Boston are less vibrant with the filmmakers intentionally stripping back some of the colours, but it still looks great.
Other languages on this disc include English Audio Descriptive Service, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Turkish and Ukrainian each encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 at 640kbps. Each of the tracks is more then acceptable, however you may want to note that the Polish track dubs their dialogue over the English one, while all the other tracks have removed the English dialogue.
Subtitles are provided in English and English SDH, as well as 22 other languages which should cover most of the obscure European market. We say obscure because some major languages such as French and German aren't subtitled. From sampling the English track the subtitles are accurate to what is spoken in the film.
21 comes to Blu-Ray with a couple of extras, all of which are well put together, and relevant to the actual movie.
Filmmaker Commentary: This commentary includes the director Robert Luketic alongside producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca. This is quite an informative, and at times entertaining and lively, commentary which details much of the production but more impressively the events that happened in real-life.
The Advantage Player (5:25/HD): This interesting featurette looks at the history of Blackjack, including a how to turn Blackjack to an advantage. Obviously you're not going to learn to master counting cards here, but if you were a little confused throughout the movie this will likely help. Actually watching this featurette prior to the movie may be an advantage.
Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal (24:48/HD): A look at the creation and filming of this movie. While a little too self praising of fellow actors, and retelling the story too much, this remains a fairly interesting look at the making of this movie.
21 Virtual Blackjack (HD): Exclusive to Blu-Ray this is a Java based game of Blackjack. Quite good, and certainly something which could keep you entertained for a while. The game includes a great training video which assists you in learning the ropes of the game, and this Java based version.
Review By: Dave Warner