Judge Dennis Prince may have smoked a few aces in his day, but he never inhaled.
May the best hitman win.
The stakes are high in this decidedly low-brow excursion into the flagging mafia leadership that commands one last hit on a despised protégé-turned-rat, opening the task to any hitman or hit squad willing to rub out a snitch and deliver his heart in return for a handsome bounty.
Facts of the Case
Sleazy Vegas illusionist Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven, Entourage) found his way into the good graces of the local wiseguys and ultimately joined their ranks when he finally got his "wick" wet by orchestrating a gun-laden bank heist. But his bravado gets the better of him and the wiseguys have grown tired of Buddy's antics. Sensing this, Buddy cooks up a deal with the FBI in which he'll rat out the mafia operatives in exchange for entry into the witness protection program. Boss Primo Sperazza (Joseph Ruskin, The Scorpion King) has set a $1 million bounty on Buddy's head and every ambitious hitman enters the race to "smoke" Aces while FBI operatives (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) also race to save Buddy so he can crush the wiseguys.
From the opening frames, Smokin' Aces brazenly declares that it is not a film for all tastes. If you're looking for a smart crime thriller that weaves an intricate web of temple-scratching developments and revelations, look elsewhere. Don't misunderstand; the narrative from Writer/Director Joe Carnahan (Narc) is ridiculously complex, but it dismisses the surgical delivery of key details, choosing to use a sledge-hammer to administer plot twists and turns. If you're looking for an absolutely nihilistic experience that takes no prisoners and benefits from an endless supply of bullets and blood, this is your film.
Naturally, Smokin' Aces was ripe for comparisons to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. It sports the unabashed violent content and repugnant lineup of unrepentant thugs, but it also borrows the sanguine style of Robert Rodriguez's Sin City as well. And while many fans of the extreme crime sub-genre often see the disdain for films that liberally borrow in this manner, Carnahan emulates the tone without wholly ripping off those that have gone before him. His foray into the depths of human hubris has a fresh taste, carried on the backs of so many characters you'll need a credit sheet to know who's who. And just when you worry there are too many characters to follow, Carnahan simply dispatches some without apology. In doing so, he establishes a rule set where nobody's above being gunned down at a moment's notice.
Most interesting is Carnahan's decision to rat-hole Buddy Israel in a swank Lake Tahoe hotel suite, inhabiting the epicenter of the convergent free-lance killers and ambiguous governmental interests. In a twisted way, I found this race to the goal to be oddly reminiscent of 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Recall that film's auto accident which results in a dying man revealing that a fortune is hidden under a giant 'W' just as he expires. The witnessing motorists, some honest, most not, race off in all directions to claim the riches, aggressively thwarting one another as their paths inevitably cross. Replace the hidden treasure with a $1 million bounty and replace the wacky motorists with a rogue's gallery of criminal scumbags governmental cretins and you have a completely unhinged interpretation of a classic that explored the lengths some would go to in order to collect a fortune.
As harsh and unflinching as Smokin' Aces is, Carnahan prevents it from becoming too dark and dissolute with a remarkably wicked vein of humor. As stark as the film's violence can be—and as unsettling as the characters' remorseless dishing of the death card could come—the manic humor reminds us this is extreme storytelling, never aspiring to realism. Therefore it's a satisfying adrenal charge for those who enjoy such thrills. Credit the stellar cast—Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Alicia Keys, and so many notable others—with properly mixing and presenting the ingredients that Carnahan has assembled. From the get-go, it's obvious that all involved understood the tone and temperament of the script and then proceeded to chew it up with ravenous abandon.
Universal maintains its exclusive high definition support of the HD DVD format with this red-only release. The 1080p / VC-1 encoded transfer looks great, making the very most of the pristine source elements. Details are crisp and contrast is sharp. Colors are amped up and practically bounce out of the picture. Black levels are deep but, when accentuated by the striking contrast, some shadow detail is lost. Overall, though, this is a great Tier-1 presentation on the HD DVD format.
As for the audio, the onboard Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround mix is active and aggressive for the entire 109-minute running time. The soundstage is wide and effects move around and across the channels with a convincing sense of realism. The low-end channel is especially well worked here, each gunshot sporting an exaggerated but enjoyable thump. Dialog is crisp and well balanced among all the activity, making this a very competent and complimentary mix.
Extras here include the same complement of elements found in the Standard Definition DVD. This includes two audio commentaries, both helmed by Carnahan who is joined by Editor Robert Frazen on Track 1 and actors Christopher Holley, Zach Cumer, and Common on Track 2. A trio of featurettes follow including The Line-Up, a look at the key characters and the actors who portray them, The Big Gun, a rather fluffy promo piece focused on Carnahan, and Shoot 'Em Up: Stunts and Effects, a too-brief look at the technical aspects of the physical elements referenced. Four deleted scenes and an alternate ending follow, tailed by 10 minutes from an outtake reel.
Of most interest to HD DVD enthusiasts is the U-Control feature, exclusive to the format, that provides the interactive element long touted for the high-definition releases (yet rarely delivered, to date). Picture-in-picture (PIP) content is very welcome here, giving viewers an opportunity to view the film with a generous offering of overlay actor interviews and production content that is definitely recommended viewing. An additional feature, "Assassin Tracker," is less compelling in its pop-up presentation of fictional character data but is still a sign of progress considering the applied use of the HD-exclusive content.
Remember, Smokin' Aces is not for all tastes, especially since it delights in its own overt tastelessness. But, given the actors are fully signed up for the task and Carnahan is clearly enjoying the delivery of this manic motion picture, the film winds up being an unexpected winner that was largely passed over during its short theatrical run. And, on HD DVD, the presentation and exclusive features are compelling enough to make this a must-have for high-definition libraries.
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