The reason we watch sequels is not in the hope that by some miracle they will surpass or improve upon their predecessors. Instead, they are enjoyed as a continuation of a larger story involving the same characters. Or on a keener level, they are watched for the sole purpose of reliving the plot of the original, but with a whole new cast of faces, utterly devoid of the events from the previous film, despite taking place within the same universe (think horror sequels). 'Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball' falls in the latter category, but likes to think itself as a prequel, which only confuses matters when you put too much thought into it. Ultimately, the blood-spattered mayhem which makes up this crippled follow-up is nothing more than a do-over of Joe Carnahan's more entertaining concoction.
By way of some covert wiretapping, the FBI uncovers an assassination attempt to kill lowly, mid-level agent Walter Reed (Tom Berenger). As for why he's of any significance is the question being asked by Agent Baker (Clayne Crawford), who's assigned to protect the wheelchair-bound analyst. While issuing an investigation behind the mystery, Baker, Reed, and a team of the Bureau's finest hide out in a fortified bunker expecting to go unnoticed. But with a strict timeline to complete the contract at precisely 3 am, some of the most lethal and psychotic assassins around come out of the woodworks to collect on the three million dollar bounty. Counting the minutes down, the agents prepare for the worst and instead encounter a sheer pandemonium of elated violence and senseless killing.
Regrettably for those willing to give this trek a chance, they will be greeted with the same ball of confusion and intensity as the movie's eccentric cast of characters. Although this direct-to-video flick is easy enough to follow, problems come from a boring and uninspired script that liberally, and quite literally, steals from the pages of 'The Usual Suspects.' Character interaction is simply too calculated and well-timed for it to be spontaneous and spur of the moment. Actors do the best they can with the material, but the two biggest names in the entire mess - Berenger and Vinnie Jones - are wasted as two very easily forgotten figures once the closing credits roll. Even the Tremor family is more annoying than comedic. And what the heck is one of the Ghostbusters doing there?
Seems the only thing keeping this self-proclaimed prequel from completely falling apart is the movie's stylish and frenetic direction. Making a name for himself as the go-to guy of low-budget sequels, P.J. Pesce ('From Dusk Till Dawn 3', 'Sniper 3', 'Lost Boys: The Tribe') shows he's capable of creating interesting visual flare and moving the story along with a lean velocity. Moreover, David Geddes's ('The Messengers') photography brings a lovely, glossy sheen to the murderous bloodshed and violence. Sadly, the fervent and speedy pace also shows an over-enthusiastic desire to emulate its predecessor rather than establish itself as a standalone feature. Too bad the filmmakers' approach comes ill-equipped with an unremarkable plot focused mainly on the bedlam.
Of course, it's easy to excuse these major flaws as the whole intent and part of the fun, but with very little substance to sustain the action, all the flashy techniques and flamboyance are of no consequence or purpose. Whereas the first film possesses a cheeky, in-joke admiration for the grindhouse genre, 'Assassins' Ball' is a noisy, chaotic mess, with nothing behind the pandemonium. Though it does try to impart an obligatory political message at the end, it feels strangely out of place and causes more head scratching than contemplation. In the end, 'Smokin' Aces 2' is an unnecessary follow-up to Carnahan's chic actioner and misses its mark by a mile.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball' on a BD50 Blu-ray disc packaged in the standard blue keepcase with a shiny slipcover. The cover art is reminiscent of its predecessor and promotes the inclusion of two versions of the movie. However, the difference between the rated and unrated versions is only two minutes and barely noticeable. As soon as the disc is inserted into the player, viewers are greeted by the normal Universal logo and menu options while a news ticker displays advertisements for new release from the studio.
There is much to enjoy in this 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.78:1) from Universal Studios, but there are also a couple of downsides to this freshly-minted transfer, especially when compared to far-better looking video presentations. Taken directly from an HD source, the picture shows some signs of the drawbacks of shooting with digital cameras. Most apparent are the scenes set inside the murky FBI offices and bunker, which are also the transfer's weakest segments with blooming whites diminishing sharpness levels. The rest of the image displays fairly good detailing in random objects, architecture, and facial complexions. In fact, close-ups are arguably demo quality in many scenes, but hardly the quality we've come to expect from a newer release. Contrast continues to be a distraction by appearing hotter than normal and even ruining flesh tones. Many times throughout, actors look sickly pale and pasty. The entire image basically looks too digitized and artificial to pass as "film."
On the plus side, blacks are consistently stable and intensely deep with mostly strong delineation within the shadows. There were some minor hints of crush in a few scattered spots, but these easily excused as the effect of intentional photography. The color palette is limited but rendered accurately with particular emphasis on red. Overall, this high-resolution picture arrives with a generally good presentation, but the few visible drawbacks cannot be ignored.
Although 'Smokin' Aces 2' doesn't blast through the front doors like the Tremor family guns-a-blazing, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack still impresses with a rowdy smash and a riotous bang. From the moment the track commences, the rear speakers display an appreciable amount of activity and smooth pans between channels. Strangely, things go mostly silent immediately afterwards, but suddenly pick up once the gun-toting, explosive mayhem starts in the third act. Discrete effects of bullets and debris fly everywhere and fill the room, immersing viewers with an action-packed soundfield of chaos and a very hefty low-bass response. The large pockets of empty space in the middle, unfortunately, are quite noticeable.
The front soundstage is bit more steady and decently balanced, providing a fun and welcoming presence. The only thing worth mentioning is the fact that vocals don't seem evenly matched with the rest of the action though words are still intelligible. Dynamic range is also unwavering and clean, adding to the movie's sonic exuberance.
Though 'Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball' is a disappointment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment debuts the straight-to-BD title with an okay collection of bonus material. It doesn't compare to some of the better packages available, but fans are sure to find something worthwhile in the selection.
As the go-to guy of low-budget sequels, P.J. Pesce helms 'Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball', a substandard sequel to Joe Carnahan's far better concoction. With a deficient script and an uninspired plot, the stylish appearance of the flick goes to waste and regrettably feels like an imitation of the first film. The Blu-ray edition of the movie debuts with good picture quality, a better audio presentation, and an average package of extras. Even fans will want to give this a rent before making a final verdict.