Judge Patrick Bromley is a smokin' five of clubs.
Prepare for murder, mayhem and madness.
While not a big box office hit in 2006, Joe Carnahan's chaotic shoot-'em-up Smokin' Aces eventually developed a cult following on DVD. Naturally, Universal (the studio that created direct-to-DVD franchises from the American Pie and Bring It On films) has decided that the film warrants a direct-to-DVD sequel. Are they correct in their assessment?
Facts of the Case
In this prequel to Smokin Aces', government paper pusher Walter Weed (Tom Berenger, Major League) has been inexplicably targeted for assassination, and it's up to Agent Baker (Clayne Crawford, Wristcutters: A Love Story) and a team of G-men to protect him inside an underground bunker. Gunning for Weed is a who's-who of notorious assassins, including master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan, Sunset Strip), insane hillbillies The Tremor Family (including the great Michael Parks of Kill Bill: Volume 2 and a sexy Autumn Reeser of The O.C.), torture-happy Finbar McTeague (Vinnie Jones, Eurotrip) and Latin seductress Ariella Martinez (Martha Higareda, Street Kings), who dispatches her victims with a poisonous kiss. Who will get to Weed first and collect the $3-million reward?
Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball is the film that critics accused the original Smokin' Aces of being: violent, stupid and obnoxiously irresponsible. While the original certainly has its share of detractors, it's actually a hugely entertaining bit of well-orchestrated chaos that benefits from excellent performances by some heavy-hitters (including Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia and Jeremy Piven) and some genuinely cool and inspired casting decisions (musicians Common and Alicia Keys are both excellent, as are Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck and Matthew Fox in smaller roles). Smokin' Aces is exactly the movie it sets out to be. Smokin' Aces 2 sets out to be the exact same film but comes up way, way short. From its conception through its execution, it's simply a movie that never needed to be.
Of course, the problems begin with the title; Smokin' Aces was called such because it was about assassinating its title character, Buddy Aces. With no character named "Aces" in the film, the title doesn't make a lot of sense (it would be like calling a movie Forrest Gump 2: George Schultz). Is that a petty concern? Yes, particularly when there are so many other, bigger problems with Assassins' Ball. While there are other attempts to connect the sequel to the original film, they're tenuous at best: two characters, Lester Tremor (one-third of the crazy hillbilly brothers led by Chris Pine in the first film) and face-changing Lazlo Soot (played by Tommy Flanagan, he of the facial scar) are present; this being a prequel, you can imagine how they fare. Christopher Holley, who plays one of Jeremy Piven's bodyguards in Smokin' Aces, is on hand, too, but playing a totally different character. Tom Berenger's Walter Weed performs card tricks throughout the film, but not for any organic reason (like, you know, that he's a famous magician). And, at one point, someone mentions Buddy Aces' lawyer. I think I got them all. Oh, and the title says "Smokin' Aces" in it, but that's been covered.
Let's see…what else? Director and co-writer P.J. Pesce (who directed another direct-to-video sequel, Lost Boys: The Tribe, a movie I disliked even more than this one) orchestrates the whole film from an ironic distance, going for cartoonishly over-the-top black comedy (say what you will about Smokin' Aces, but for all its outlandishness, Carnahan pretty much played it straight—unless you count that weird kid doing kung-fu, which I'm still trying to block out). The screenplay, co-written by Pesce and brothers Olatunde and Olumide Osunsanmi (Carnahan's former assistants), is more than happy to basically copy the original film beat for beat right down to the overly-complicated "twist" ending (which, without spoiling anything, incorporates several real-world tragedies; there's little worse than real suffering being exploited in the name of terrible art). The film was clearly made on the cheap and it shows, from the heavy use of bad green screen backgrounds to the laughable substitution of Vancouver for Chicago (even the interior of the bar obviously doesn't belong in Chicago) to a number of terrible digital explosions. Movies like this need to feel kinetic, and there's nothing kinetic about computer-rendered effects.
Universal's Blu-ray of Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball comes with both the rated-R version of the film and an unrated cut that's two minutes longer. I only watched the unrated cut and can't compare the differences, mostly because sitting through the movie a second time wasn't a prospect I found particularly appealing. It's safe to say that anyone seeking the film out is interested in gunfights and violence, and for those reasons I would assume the unrated version is the preferred cut. The 1080p, VC 1-encoded image is especially strong for a direct-to-DVD release; detail is strong, black levels are deep and consistent and the bursts of crimson blood are appropriately bold. I kind of hate the way the film looks, but that's the fault of P.J. Pesce's over-reliance on cheap special effects and post-production digital processing. The Blu-ray is not to be blamed, and offers the best possible visual presentation of the film. The DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track is equally aggressive, making the most of the numerous shootouts with plenty of low-end heft and dimensionality while still offering clarity with the dialogue—insipid as it may be.
Pesce and producer Joe Carnahan supply a commentary track that's probably the best thing about the disc. It's laid back and entertaining without being all that informative, and while the pair have a tendency to overpraise what's on screen, Carnahan rarely shies away from being critical. As a fan of the director, it was good to hear his thoughts on the film; besides, it's rare that one of these direct-to-DVD cash-ins actually receives an endorsement from the original creator. Also included is a series of forgettable deleted scenes and a lame gag reel that's notable mostly because you can see just how much of the film was shot in front of a green screen (as though you couldn't already tell).
The rest of the supplemental section is comprised of behind-the-scenes featurettes. The longest and most comprehensive is "Confessions of an Assassin," which covers the whole production and is filled with too much affection for director Pesce and the finished film (which is constantly referred to throughout the bonus materials as Smokin' Aces: Blowback, a title that's actually worse than Assassins' Ball). The rest of the featurettes are shorter and cover individual aspects of the film: "Behind the Scenes with Joe Carnahan" talks about the original film and that director's involvement in the sequel; "Ready, Aim, Fire" covers the weaponry in the film; "Cue the Clown" details one of the worst, most self-satisfied scenes in the movie (involving…that's right…exploding clowns); "The Bunker Mentality" explores the film's central set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Is there an audience for Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball? Of course. Gunfights and graphic bloodshed will always have their place, and the film has no shortage of either. But there ought to be more to a movie than faux-slickness and mindless, stupid violence. After all, isn't that what the Grand Theft Auto games are for?
As a big fan of Smokin' Aces, I found this sequel to be a lot like Carnahan's original—minus the soul, clever script, talented cast and filmmaking skill. Check it out if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you.
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