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21 DVD Review

21 (2008) movie poster 21

Theatrical Release: March 28, 2008 / Running Time: 123 Minutes / Rating: PG-13 / songs

Director: Robert Luketic / Writers: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb (screenplay); Ben Mezrich (book)

Cast: Jim Sturgess (Ben Campbell), Kevin Spacey (Micky Rosa), Kate Bosworth (Jill Taylor), Aaron Yoo (Choi), Liza Lapira (Kianna), Jacob Pitts (Jimmy Fisher), Josh Gad (Miles Conolly), Sam Golzari (Cam Kazazi), Laurence Fishburne (Cole Williams), Jack McGee (Terry), Helen Carey (Ellen Campbell), Jack Gilpin (Bob Phillips)

Buy 21 from Amazon.com: 1-Disc DVD 2-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD Blu-ray Disc

The protagonist of 21 celebrates his twenty-first birthday early in the film. But, as you can probably guess from the playing card imagery of the poster and DVD artwork,
the title also alludes to the winning number in blackjack, the casino game that's crucial to this movie's plot.

21 is based on Ben Mezrich's 2003 book Bringing Down the House, whose nonfiction classification was recently disputed. It centers on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe), a shy, brilliant senior at MIT with a 4.0 GPA. Ben's blend of intelligence and cool composure attracts the attention of his nonlinear equations professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). An invitation is thereby extended for Ben to join a private group of math wiz students.

Meeting after hours in a darkened classroom, the Micky-led team crunches numbers and goes over a word substitution system and a series of nonverbal cues. They're not delving deeper into their studies or trying to score discoveries for academia. Instead, they're plotting moves for their unadvertised extracurricular activity: counting cards in Las Vegas blackjack games to the collective fattening of their wallets.

Being part of MIT's card-counting blackjack team requires Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) spend hours of study and practice with playing cards. Two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey plays Micky Rosa: nonlinear equations professor by week, Vegas card-counting ringleader by weekend. Spacey also produced "21."

In what the professor repeatedly insists is purely a business arrangement, the group's lone interests are self-gain and avoiding the suspicion of casino security, two things they've perfected over time. On principles, the inexperienced Ben is reluctant to join the group. But he's been accepted at Harvard Medical School and the odds are against him winning the one available full scholarship he needs. With enough encouragement, he's in, with his plan being to get out when he reaches the $300,000 mark needed to cover grad school and all associated costs.

It's pretty clear that there are two destinations for the film. Both are visited. The first and more alluring path is where 21 hits its peak entertainment value. The bright students and their sage advisor outsmart the casinos, winning huge in various sites on their weekend Vegas getaways. The glitz and glamour of the location is surpassed by the flowing cash chips and emotional highs of their victories. Ben even makes progress with Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the attractive teammate established as obvious, elusive love interest.

It's the inevitable undoing that causes the movie to stumble some, as unmotivated missteps occur and irreversible lines are crossed for the sake of drama and a moral. The final act plays out with the realism of Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas, and it's tough to take seriously the drastic character changes presented. Of course, even if The Boston Globe hadn't condemned the source text's credibility nine days into 21's theatrical run, it would still be evident that broad dramatic licenses were being taken by Hollywood for the sake of pleasing crowds.

The scam is in action against the bright casino lights, as Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) pretends to not know the young man sandwiched between two Asian women. The watchful eyes of casino security man Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) make him a force of opposition.

That's fine by me. The movie doesn't overplay its true story card and this isn't some Earth-shattering historical phenomenon being depicted. It plays as escapism -- appealing contemporary fantasy that is largely well-realized by the charismatic cast and sensible direction.

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Knowing that at least a toe is dipped into the pool of truth, we can question the logic and feasibility of it all. We can also remark upon the obvious arcs and telling conventions. These responses are especially welcomed by the film's slight undervaluing of viewer intelligence. But in the end, 21 offers a pretty fun ride and that's what it chiefly sets out to do.

Though critics weren't crazy about the movie, audiences sort of were. They made it the third highest-grossing film of the first third of the year, when business is generally slow prior to the "summer" season blitz. Earning $81 million stateside and another $75 M overseas on a $35 M reported production budget, 21 is one of few 2008 films that can be deemed a certain moneymaker from its theatrical run alone.

In what's quickly becoming the norm for major studio flicks, 21 comes to home video next week in three forms. There's the Blu-ray Disc version and two DVDs: a single disc and a 2-Disc Deluxe Edition. We're reviewing the standard DVD, but if you read on, you'll see there's little difference between it and the premium double platter.

Before discussing the DVD, I feel compelled to mention something that no one else seems to have: Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth have become an established team. 21 is their third film together in just four years, following their romance in Beyond the Sea and opposing sides in Superman Returns. A bonus feature mentions that, as a producer of 21, Spacey reached out to cast Bosworth. Wonder if they'll keep working as a package deal. Look out, Tracy and Hepburn!

Buy 21 on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English and Spanish
Release Date: July 22, 2008
Suggested Retail Price: $28.96
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase with Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in 2-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD
and on Blu-ray Disc


On DVD and Blu-ray, 21 appears exclusively in its 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen displays. The film's swell visuals are easy to appreciate in this clean, sharp, vivacious transfer. Even more impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which steadily engulfs with suitable score and apt atmospheric, while dialogue comes forth with in-the-room clarity. More than two dozen pop songs (full list below) are sampled throughout the movie.

Liza Lapira and friends (clockwise from top left: Kate Bosworth, Jim Sturgess, Aaron Yoo, and Jacob Pitts) teach the art of blackjack card-counting. Jeffrey Ma is the real-life inspiration for the book and movie. Man, it's like looking into Jim Sturgess' future! Cards, chips, suites, and numbers swirl past a pensive Ben Jim in the winning animated main menu.


Easily the longest supplemental inclusion is an audio commentary by director Robert Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca. The three produce a routine and overly commendatory track, but their light conversation isn't too tough to take.
There's some narration, talk of the game and logistics (things gladly not overdiscussed in the film), and further proof that they underestimate viewers. There is also plenty of behind-the-scenes information revealed on casting, filming, specific cinematic influences, revisions, casinos' reaction to the movie, and a double twist ending that was considered. I wouldn't recommend a listen, except to the most fervent fans of 21 and commentaries.

All three remaining extras fall under the "Featurettes" header.

"The Advantage Player" (5:25) has the film's five young leads teach us how to count cards, after a little background information on blackjack. While the lessons aren't enough to book a Vegas trip on and there's a slight camp value, this brief piece is certainly... educational and fun.

"Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal" (24:45) mostly lives up to its name, with a thorough look at production. A bit heavy on talking heads at first, we eventually get some good candid location footage. Among the topics discussed are the project's origins and development, the cast's assembling, using Genesis digital video cameras, and filming in open Vegas casinos and at assorted Massachusetts locales.

"Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life" (7:05) elaborates on the film's two distant settings, with the focus on how Las Vegas was conveyed to emphasize its fashion and fantasy.

With only a commentary and three featurettes (two of which are very short), 21 isn't pushing DVD-9 capacity with its bonus slate. But if you're expecting more from the 2-Disc Deluxe Edition, you're bound for disappointment. With a retail tag of $6 more (translating to a customer cost difference of about $4-10), the only addition is a digital copy of the film. It's quite cheaper than an iTunes movie download, but doubtful to entice most DVD buyers. Meanwhile, the Blu-ray version holds the exclusive game "21 Virtual Blackjack", which sounds virtually promising.

The DVD opens with a promo for recent Sony Blu-ray releases, an anti-smoking spot, and a trailer for The House Bunny. The "Previews" menu holds additional looks (of widely varying length) at Lakeview Terrace, Quarantine, CJ7, Prom Night, Across the Universe, the 21 soundtrack, The Other Boleyn Girl, Casino Royale, Married Life, Vantage Point, Persepolis, "The Shield", "Rescue Me", Made of Honor, and Taking Five.

The main menu makes inspired use of casino imagery, montaging the film in the shapes of the four suites. Static submenus maintain the theme, with chip cursors, a sleek design, and score excerpts.

In initial pressings at least, the DVD comes with a cardboard slipcover that merely duplicates all the keepcase artwork below. Interestingly, that artwork pushes Kevin Spacey front and center, after he was left off the original poster and merely peripheral in a revision. The only in-case insert advertises the 21 soundtrack and, by flimsy extension, other Rolling Stones albums.

Ben meets the pre-existing members of the card-counting team. Left to right, they are Fisher (Jacob Pitts), Kianna (Liza Lapira), Jill (Kate Bosworth), and Choi (Aaron Yoo). Ben looks out over the bright Las Vegas lights, a man changed by money.


21 is far from a great film, but it is a good movie, whose fun story makes it easy to overlook gaps in logic, character inconsistencies, and some rough edges. Sony's DVD doesn't set any benchmarks and is conspicuously void of deleted scenes, but the great feature presentation, passable commentary, and solid featurettes add up to a satisfying package. Check it out.

Buy 21 from Amazon.com: 1-Disc DVD / 2-Disc DVD / Blu-ray Disc / The Book by Ben Mezrich

Buy from Amazon.com

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Las Vegas: COPS: 20th Anniversary Edition Next Knocked Up | Boston: Gone Baby Gone The Verdict

The Cast of 21:
Jim Sturgess: Across the Universe The Other Boleyn Girl | Aaron Yoo: Disturbia
Kate Bosworth: Remember the Titans: Director's Cut | Kevin Spacey: A Bug's Life Iron Will
Laurence Fishburne: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer TMNT | Liza Lapira: Cloverfield

21 Songs List: MGMT - "Time to Pretend", Spirit - "I Got a Line on You", LCD Soundsystem - "Big Ideas", Great Northern - "Home", Junkie XL featuring Electrocute - "Mad Pursuit", Get Shakes - "Sister Self Doubt", Moby - "Slipping Away (Axwell Vocal Mix)", The Aliens - "I Am the Unknown", Broadcast - "Tender Buttons", Ken Andrews - "Does Anybody Know", Weezer - "Everybody Get Dangerous", Domino - "Tropical Moonlight", Yppah - "Again with the Subtitles", Peter Bjorn and John - "Young Folks", Rihanna - "Shut Up and Drive", Knivez Out - "Alright", Carl Kaller - "Third Ear Journey", UNKLE - "Hold My Hand", Mark Ronson featuring Kasabian - "L.S.F. (Lost Souls Forever)", Amon Tobin - "Always", Johann Sebastian Bach - "Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043", The Octopus Project - "Music is Happiness", Gianfranco Plenizio - "Rito A Los Angeles", The Rolling Stones - "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (Soulwax remix), David Sardy featuring Liela Moss - "Giant"

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Reviewed July 18, 2008.

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