The SmarK DVD Rant for 21

Available at Amazon.com

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner”

– I don’t even really like that quote, but they say it so damn much in hopes of creating a catchphrase that I just had to throw it in here out of pity.

The Film

My wife LOVES Jim Sturgess. So her initial excitement over the movie somewhat skewed my original intentions to go see it in the theatre (which is to say, I had none) and then compelled me to get it on DVD as well.

Now, I’m not such a huge fan of Sturgess, but I do enjoy a good movie about math, so this was one I was willing to give a chance to. Unfortunately this one was a bit too much about math, seemingly generating a plot from an equation rather than any interesting human interest story. And that’s the really weird thing, because the movie is based on one of those true stories that’s so cool it can only happen in movies like this one.

Sturgess plays Ben Campbell (in real life an Asian MIT student), who is a super-duper smarty pants and gets talked into joining a top secret Blackjack club led by Kevin Spacey (in real life another Asian), featuring a bunch more white kids (who were Asian kids in real life), and together they learn to count cards. This is pretty neat, as the movie introduces the mechanics of counting (you add 1 for low cards, 0 for middle cards, and subtract 1 for high cards) and then stresses how NOT illegal it is. Because it’s totally not. And to make sure we know how illegal it’s not, the movie further stresses that Ben is a good person because he’s only doing it to make $300,000 for Harvard Medical, at which point he’ll be out. So really, he’s not doing anything wrong and it’s OK to cheer for him, since he’s the hero and all. Not like that Kevin Spacey, who’s doing it for profit. That’s just wrong, man.

I think the first problem is that Ben Campbell is such a fundamentally dull character that the movie has to jump through hoops just to give him a backstory interesting enough to make what should be a fascinating human interest story into something that can be stretched into 2 hours. Although the IDEA of counting cards is an interesting one, it’s like an interesting 30 minute documentary on the Discovery Channel, not a Hollywood thriller, which is why you generally need an interesting plot and interesting characters to go along with it. And therein lies the second problem — this movie has neither. The “rise and fall and rise again of a prodigy” thing has been done to death in much better movies, and this isn’t one that has anything new to say on the subject. In fact, this is a movie that seems unwilling to commit to a point of view on anything. It’s a movie about gambling, but it goes out of the way to show that they’re only playing a system and thus aren’t really gambling; so it carefully avoids making any moral statements about whether what they’re doing is right or not. It neither takes the side of the gamblers (who are only playing to win money) nor the security chief chasing them (who is only doing it as a job for the casinos and makes no judgments on the morality of it). It’s not that I really care which side is doing it for the “correct” reasons, but it’s just really dull to watch a movie that doggedly tries not to offend anyone. I mean, watch Casino, where Robert DeNiro passionately comes down on cheaters by smashing up their hands with a hammer, because he’s RIGHT and they’re WRONG and the movie isn’t afraid to take that stand. The closest that this movie comes to that is when Ben gets beat up by the mildly villainous security force, but only after he veers from The System and starts gambling. And really, all of this would be forgivable if the movie was packed with interesting characters to root for or relate to, but the main cast reads like a roll call of stock characters, played by vanilla twentysomething actors. Even Kevin Spacey, the main star power of the movie, is basically phoning it in and given nothing to work with as the professor bankrolling the operation and mainly staying in the shadows. Near the end, when he cuts loose and dresses up for the big final gig, the movie starts to show the potential that it was demonstrating early on, but when you have someone just begging to ham it up as much as Spacey and then give him such a dressed-down role to play, you’re just asking for trouble. Or boredom.

Like really, did we need the love story? Did we need the cute blonde girl to convince him to join the team and then string him along with some of the most dull will-they-or-won’t-they non-chemistry seen on the big screen in quite some time? She’s just another unneeded Hollywood screenplay-by-numbers element added for the female demographic so he can get the girl, lose the girl, and then get her back again, none of which is particularly captivating as it plays out because she’s not a very interesting person. Their whole courtship is reduced to a montage, like everything else in the movie. The system of counting the cards should be interesting, but it’s turned into time-lapse photography so the screenplay can move onto the next pre-ordained beat (hint: It’s where the former golden boy Fisher gets all jealous and falls from grace to foreshadow what’s going to happen to the hero).

Which is not to say it’s a bad or even unwatchable movie. It’s Perfectly Acceptable Moviemaking, but watching it a second time on DVD just bored the crap out of me because once you know all the story beats, the movie loses any sense of suspense it might have had the first time through. There’s no great lines to look forward to, no characters with any kind of depth to them, no unexpected plot twists to keep the story fresh, hell, there’s barely even any conflict aside from a couple of mildly disgruntled nerds and the occasional beating. It’s a movie that exists only because someone thought it was a nice story to tell, but couldn’t find an actual movie to create around it, so we get this instead. And that’s a shame, because it’s a genre still begging for another classic to be made around it. In the parlance of 21, however, this one was afraid to play big and didn’t know when to get out and try another table.

Audio and Video

A very good looking film with a good looking transfer, as the gaudy lights of Vegas shine through nicely here and little touches like the indents on the CGI cards in the opening are visible clearly. Also impressive is the sound mix, as the impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack fills the room, but cuts out at exactly the right time to hear everyone speaking clearly. I like not having to dive for the remote and crank the sound up or down depending on the scene. Surrounds aren’t used too much but give a nice Vegas atmosphere with the casino noises mixed into the background for ambiance, the way it should be. Nothing I’d call reference, but it does the job.

Bonus Features

The disc sent to me was the single-disc version, although I believe the two-disc set only adds a digital copy. At any rate, what you get in the special features are as follows:

– Commentary with director Robert Luketic and other members of the filmmaking team, which is pretty dry stuff.

– A short featurette with the cast called “The Advantage Player”, which runs 5:00 and gives a more in-depth guide to actually counting cards in real life than the movie does. Remember, it’s not illegal!

– A short featurette called “Money Plays”, which runs 7:00 and is a look at the always-thrilling world of production design.

– A feature called “Basic Strategy” which runs 24:00 and features a bunch of talking heads right out of the press kit.

– Plus a ton of ads for other Sony Pictures properties on DVD, which they at least don’t force you to sit through at the beginning like FOX does.

What the special features do NOT feature in any form are interviews with the actual people who this movie was based on, or any kind of in-depth look at card counting in the real world, either of which might be far more interesting than the actual movie was. But I guess I can’t hold that against them.

The Ratings:

The Film: **

The Video: ****

The Audio: ****

The Extras: **

The Pulse:

Not a bad movie, but pretty much the definition of a rental. In fact, it made me want to go out and watch Casino again after I saw it, so at least it succeeds on that level. I’d also recommend PT Anderson’s Hard Eight for a really cool look at how to use the system in Vegas against itself and it’s got John C. Reilly in the lead! Take a pass on 21 — the deck is too soft.

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