21 is a mini-Ocean’s Eleven about, and for, people who are the age of its title. In this true-life tale, MIT undergrad and mathematical genius Ben (Jim Sturgess) finds himself up against a wall—he doesn’t have $300,000 to attend Harvard Medical School, where he’s competing for a free-ride scholarship—until a solution magically materializes in the form of professor Rosa (Kevin Spacey). In his off-hours, Rosa works as the ringleader of a group of brilliant students who travel to Vegas on weekends and make crazy money counting cards at blackjack tables. Thus Ben goes from penniless dork with penniless dork friends to casino superstar with wads of cash and a babe girlfriend (Kate Bosworth). Director Robert Luketic goes for neither the gambling scene ambiance of Rounders nor the character-study pathos of Hard Eight, opting instead for as much Vegas flash as he can pack into his conventional tale of one’s man rise from nothing, fall from grace, and redemptive triumph. That it competently hits all its marks—the empathetic underdog hero, the comedic relief characters who are sorta-kinda amusing, Vegas’s sexy glitz—would be faint praise if not for the fact that so many likeminded studio efforts are wholesale incompetent. Nonetheless, this film, though diverting, is hardly worthy of entry into the pantheon of great movies about gambling, heists, scams, college, or pretty young people doing daring things, in part because Luketic grossly distends the action with a flabby, repetitive middle section. As befitting the script’s adherence to formula, Ben is (snooze) eventually corrupted by the wealth, status, and confidence that come from winning big. Yet the director’s perfunctory celebration of Sin City’s gaudy glamour—its enticing casino floors, swank suites, and moody strip clubs—is overstated to the point that any narrative tension or electricity is incapacitated by endless CG zooms in and around the blackjack table and its colorful chips. Sturgess handles his good guy-gone-temporarily-wrong role with proficiency, but 21 is ultimately so by-the-numbers that, like his cerebral protagonist, the audience is always one step ahead of the house.
Not a pretty movie, especially that diarrhea-tinted exterior scene in Chinatown (what are the filmmakers trying to insinuate here?), but the transfer is near spotless. Indeed, given all the neon lights in the film, it's amazing that the worst of it is a few stray bits of digital junk on a blackjack table here and there. As for the sound: Do cards make this much noise in real life?
The commentary by director Robert Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca is an obligatory play-by-play of their wheeling and dealing and shout-outs to universities, cities and those responsible for the film's CGI suturings. On disc two, you will find your digital copy of the film along with a serviceable making-of featurette, an exploration of the film's clothes, luxuries and locations, a headache-y rundown by the film's young cast of how to card count, and a bunch of previews, including one for my I-can't-wait-movie-of-2008 The House Bunny.
21, in which Kevin Spacey lecherously sizes up a line of female strippers at a Vegas casino, now serves as the greatest testament to the man's talent as an actor.