Universal // 2006 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // January 19th, 2010
May the best hitman win.
To coincide with the release of the direct-to-DVD Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball, Universal is releasing Joe Carnahan's polarizing 2006 original on Blu-ray. Does the movie warrant an upgrade?
Vegas magician Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven, Chasing Liberty) has slowly been making the transition from showman to legitimate hood, and has ruffled the feathers of the mob in the process. Holed up in a posh Lake Tahoe hotel suite, Buddy becomes the target of a hit with a $1 million bounty. Every hit man and criminal within throwing distance sets out to collect, from the redneck Tremor Brothers (led by Chris Pine of Star Trek (2009)) to master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan, Sons of Anarchy) to the sexy Georgia Sykes (R&B singer Alicia Keys, The Secret Life of Bees) to bail bondsmen Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck, Man About Town), Pete Deeks (Peter Berg, The Great White Hype) and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson, Torque). Attempting to stop the hit and keep the hitmen from cutting out Buddy's heart are FBI agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds, The Proposal) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta, Observe and Report). Will they be able to stop the ensuing bloodbath, or will someone succeed in smoking Aces?
When writer/director Joe Carnahan released Narc in 2002, it was a badly-needed shot in the arm to the stale cop movie genre -- a visceral, kinetic gutpunch of a movie that would feel right at home with some of the best cop movies of the 1970s. It also caught the attention of some major Hollywood players, including Tom Cruise (a producer on Narc), who tapped Carnahan to direct the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Eventually, the prickly Carnahan left the project over "creative" differences (the job eventually went to J.J. Abrams, eventually paving the way for him to reboot Star Trek so it's clear everything worked out for the best), instead choosing to work out all his frustration and anger with his next film, Smokin' Aces. The result is a cinematic "F U" that, as far as I'm concerned, works like gangbusters.
It's easy to see why a lot of people don't like Smokin' Aces, and why audiences (for the most part) rejected it when it was released in early 2007. It's the kind of movie that goes over being over the top -- a violent, ridiculous, frenzied piece of bullet comedy that refuses to straddle the middle. It's a take-it-or-leave-it movie. But unlike a movie like, say, Crank (with which Smokin' Aces may be most easily compared), it's not just a hollow exercise in immature style and bloody vulgarity. Carnahan really does a have a story to tell, and while it's mostly a convoluted series of twists providing the framework for a number of excellent action set pieces, there's at least something to anchor all the craziness. It's orchestrated chaos, and Carnahan almost never loses control of the thing (there are a few instances -- chiefly involving Martin Henderson and a kid doing karate, in which the director becomes overly indulgent in his own nonsense). When the threads eventually come together in the film's climactic elevator shoot-out, all bets are off, and the sequence is all the stronger because Carnahan has earned it.
Carnahan gets a great deal of support from a top-notch cast. While I've been a Ryan Reynolds fan since his ABC sitcom days, his G-man turn in Smokin' Aces was really the first time audiences and critics began taking him seriously as a leading man. While most of the actors get to go way over the top, dressing up funny and running around shooting people, Reynolds is required to ground many of the movie's more ludicrous aspects in both reality and humanity; that he's able to do it is what lends a potentially soulless movie a great deal of soul. Ray Liotta is equally good as his ill-fated partner, and Andy Garcia lends the movie some class with his stuff, not-to-be-trusted FBI director. On the hitman side, you get a huge range of performances, from the cartoonish madness of Chris Pine and the Tremor Brothers to the effortless cool of rapper Common and Alicia Keys (who is terrific in her first role). Even the smallest roles provide great characters performed by a talented, eclectic mix of actors, from Ben Affleck to Peter Berg to Curtis Armstrong to Matthew Fox to a scene-stealing Jason Bateman. Batting cleanup, of course, is Jeremy Piven at the center of it all, and while his quick descent into drug-addled paranoia and madness can be difficult to watch, there's no denying Piven's ability to play a self-absorbed, obnoxious sonuvabitch.
Universal's Blu-ray release of Smokin' Aces offers an A/V upgrade but not a whole lot else. The film is presented in 1080p and an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and the HD transfer does right by Carnahan's all-over-the-map visual style. The color palette is all over the place, from warm outdoor tones and lush Lake Tahoe settings to sickly greens and garish neons, and the disc handles them all quite well. Blacks are consistently deep and very little noise or edge enhancement is noticeable. The DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track is pretty great, too, with aggressive effects (gunshots and otherwise) and lots of cool, immersive activity in the rear channels. What's even better is that dialogue never suffers (except when intended; I'm looking at you, Ben Affleck's last scene) amidst all the auditory pyrotechnics.
Anyone looking for new Blu-ray bonus features is going to come away disappointed, as most of the supplementary section has simply been ported over from the DVD release. The disc comes equipped with D-Box capability (that's new), but I don't have the hardware to test that function. The only other new feature is a pair of "U-Control" features; the first, "Assassin Tracker," is a forgettable trivia track, and the second (much better) offering is a picture-in-picture track featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. It's nothing outstanding, but fans of Carnahan (I'm one of them) might enjoy seeing the director's methods at work.
Elsewhere, it's the DVD bonus features. There's a pair of commentary tracks, the first featuring Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen and the second featuring Carnahan, stars Common, Christopher Holley and Zach Cumer (the kid with the thick glasses doing karate, easily the worst and most regrettable moment in the movie). Because I like both Carnahan and Smokin' Aces, I found quite a bit of value in both tracks; they're candid and vulgar, and though Carnahan has a tendency to come off as arrogant and overly macho I enjoyed the commentaries. Some deleted scenes and an alternate ending (called "The Cowboy Ending") are interesting but not vital; somewhat more entertaining is the outtake reel, though that's probably because I like most of the cast. Rounding out the special features are some featurettes covering the various hitman characters, the weapons and special effects and writer/director Carnahan. The Blu-ray also features BD-Live capability.
I really like Smokin' Aces and find it quite rewatchable, so I'm happy to have this excellent-looking HD upgrade. With a nearly identical supplementary section, however, casual fans may want to stick with their standard definition DVD copies. The uninitiated are better off with a rental first, as Carnahan's hyperkinetic, darkly funny bloodbath isn't for all tastes. It isn't even for most tastes.
Skip the terrible sequel and stick with Carnahan's original Smokin' Aces.
Review content copyright © 2010 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Ending
* Deleted/Extended Scenes
* D-Box Enabled
* Official Site