(2008) ** Pg-13
123 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Robert Luketic. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Liza LaPira.

If you've never seen a movie before, 21 will have you on the edge of your seat. For the rest of us, this loose adaptation of Ben Mezrich's non-fiction bestseller Bringing Down the House is a lead-heavy sack of clichés that tries to appeal to the Maxim crowd. The press notes understate "certain changes to the story," with the producer making the excuse "it's not meant to be a docudrama." Fair enough. But with screenwriters taking control, why is the "fun movie" version always less interesting and less meaningful than the truth? Answer: Hollywood thinks we're all too stupid to enjoy a movie that doesn't replay the same old tried and tested story beats.

Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays 21-year-old MIT student Ben Campbell, whose desire to cover tuition for Harvard Medical School leads him to join a team of card-counting fellow students led by a chalk-throwing non-linear equations professor named Micky Rosa. He's played by Kevin Spacey, whose roiling energy, though familiar and despite hackneyed dialogue, makes the picture nominally bearable. "You were born for this. You'll have more fun than you've had in your entire life. It's perfect," Rosa purrs seductively. A junior Faust, 21 includes a flaming geyser outside a casino for good measure.

Because it's a Kevin Spacey picture, Kate Bosworth is also on hand as Ben's love interest Jill. She's a cipher of sorts, with a late-breaking sense of morality after trading her sexuality to seduce an unconvinced Campbell. Of course, Campbell joins the merry band of cheaters, who remind Ben that counting cards isn't illegal, their disguises and trickery nothwithstanding. There's an interesting question here that the film doesn't deal with in satisfying depth: since card counting isn't illegal—and casinos prey on people's emotions and stupidity essentially to rob them of their money—is Rosa's cheating wrong?

Certainly the anachronistic old-Vegas "loss prevention specialist" Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) who pummels cheaters isn't right in his recourse, though the film's attitude wavers depending on who's in his hot seat (I love how every movie casino has the same cavernous boiler room for this purpose). Fishburne's character sparks some of the film's most unintentionally funny moments. After the script hammers home that Williams is a dinosaur competing with facial-recognition software, we get a scene in which he's asked by his boss to put out a cigarette in the security room. Fishburne to his sidekick: "End of an era, my friend."

The story's thoroughly predictable course does no service to its supporting characters, such as the petulant former "big player" on the team (Jacob Pitts) and the team spotters: an Asian hipster doofus (Aaron Yoo of Disturbia) and an easily swayed girl (Liza Lapira) with little to say. Instead, the screenplay attends to the absent-father issues of Ben and Jill that make them extra-susceptible to Micky. Boy howdy, the absent dad certainly has become the motivation du jour of late (now more than ever, as they say...).

Above all, it's a coming-of-age story for Ben, whose bemoaned lack of experience threatens his application to Harvard Med. (Anyone who has ever applied to any institution of higher learning will roll their eyes at the preposterous timelines proffered around Ben's application and interviews...keep telling yourself: it's not a docudrama.) Enticed by the promise of Sin City thrills then swatted on the snout for going too far, Ben learns to change and change again. "The best thing about Vegas is you can become anybody you want," Jill tells him, but when the then money-hungry and callous Ben says, "I'm not the same guy I was in Boston," she disdainfully replies, "Exactly." Oh, snap!

He's also not the same guy at the center of Mezrich's book—that'd be Jeff Ma, who consulted and filmed a cameo as a dealer. It's bothersome that Hollywood has so little faith in hanging their "fun movie" (not a docudrama, remember) on an Asian lead. In promoting the film, Ma offers, "I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me," but Sturgess is no great shakes: he's one of those young stars, like Bosworth, who keep getting pushed on us despite spotty acting skill.

Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde ) and DP Russell Carpenter try to juice it all up with the fancy flash of Vegas and tiresome camera shots that put you crawling around on the blackjack table with the cards. These are what cinematographic and CGI innovations have bought us, in place of a focus on narrative: talk about a deal with the devil. By the improbable semi-action climax, all is lost. Take it from this loss prevention specialist: don't play 21.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 7/22/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony deals out a Blu-Ray special edition (mirrored on a 2-disc DVD set) of 21. The image, captured on Sony Genesis cameras, translates well to high-definition home video. I'm not a fan of the yellow washes applied to a few of the Boston interiors, but they appear accurately to represent the filmmaker's intent (as does the harsh red that threatens to blow out one transitional scene). Color is natural in most scenes, and detail is excellent, with a hint of digital grain by which the Genesis gives the movie a film-like appearance. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack crisply renders the theatrical surround experience. Of course, this Sony disc is BD-Live enabled, with special content available on the web.

The Blu-Ray edition includes an exclusive 21 Virtual Blackjack game. A "Tutorial Video" (1:33) explains the game and how to use the icons. One can play in "classroom" or "casino" mode, the former highlighting what you're supposed to do at every juncture. The cheat sheets are also accessible within the casino mode for those who get nail-bitingly nervous as their stake shrinks. For casino play, players enter a name and choose a disguise. If your player is hooked up to the internet, you can also participate in Leader Board standings. Warning: it's addictive!

In a nearly nonstop commentary track, director Robert Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca give plenty of production detail along with plenty of kidding around. Topics covered include the film's origins and "inspired by" nature, location shooting, and gambling tales from the casino floor. Amongst the many anecdotes, we also get a strong sense of what it's like to have Kevin Spacey as producer and star: impressive and a little intimidating.

The disc also includes a trio of Featurettes (37:22 with "Play All" option). First up is "The Advantage Player" (5:25), which has the film's young cast (Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, and Jacob Pitts) tutor the viewer in winning blackjack gambling systems.

"Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal" (24:48) is a straight-ahead making-of doc, explaining the film's origins, working its way through the cast, and discussing and demonstrating shooting on high-end digital video and in casinos. Participants include Bringing Down the House author Ben Mezrich, original MIT student Jeff Ma, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Brunetti, De Luca, Luketic, Sturgess, Bosworth, Yoo, Lapira, Pitts, screenwriter Peter Steinfeld, technical advisor Kyle Morris, director of photography Russell Carpenter, production designer Missy Stewart, and visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall.

"Money Plays: A Tour of the Good Life" (7:08) puts the focus on fashion, with costume designer Luca Mosca, Stewart, Bosworth, Luketic, and Sturgess. Previews include Prom Night, The Other Boleyn Girl, Men in Black, Damages--Season 1, Persepolis, Across the Universe, Made of Honor, Vantage Point, and Married Life. Fans of 21 and aspiring gamblers will want to spend some quality time with this disc.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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