After making such a strong impression in 2002 with the police procedural 'Narc', Joe Carnahan ('The A-Team (2010)') surprised audiences everywhere with a project that was infinitely different and nowhere near as subtle or methodical. Whereas his second feature film is deliberately paced and character driven with a gritty tone that's bleakly effective, 'Smokin' Aces' moves swiftly through a laundry list of characters with none considerably developed or polished, sleek style over substance takes precedence. There is no mistaking this brash, gun-slinging flick is meant to be nothing more than one hundred minutes of pure anarchy and complete pandemonium, a loud riotous hootenanny full of explosive debauchery, self-indulgent violence, and a firearms extravaganza.
For his third feature film, Carnahan gives us the story of a Las Vegas magician named Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a wannabe mobster who turned informant instead. Put under FBI protective custody, he hides in a Lake Tahoe hotel penthouse. Soon, Agents Caruthers (Ray Liotta) and Messner (Ryan Reynolds) uncover an assassination hit placed on Buddy's head with a one million dollar reward. As word spreads through the underground criminal hotline, some of the wildest assassins from around the world prepare to crash the party. Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan) is a master of disguise. Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) are a pair of beautiful sharpshooters. Pasqual "The Plague" Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) is a notorious mercenary and torture expert. And lastly, we have the deranged, neo-Nazi skinhead family, the Tremors.
The whole thing is, in all honesty, a wild, fanatical jubilee of insanity and an energized spectacle of violent behavior that's weirdly humorous. There's just something oddly funny of watching Affleck, Berg, Bateman, and Matthew Fox get involved in this enormous fiasco. And what's up with the karate kid who excites himself while throwing punches! Compared to what came before it, Carnahan goes out on a limb with a script that's as simple as they come and equips this far-from-quaint, adrenaline-fueled actioner with a speedy tempo and a psychotic ensemble of caricatures. At times, we move between characters so quickly that after a while everything becomes a blur, and the movie is just a big mesh of random dialogue and faces gunning for a major showdown at the end. It's also somewhat predictable, except for the last person standing, which makes for an amusing twist.
For many viewers, this lack of development or a central character will likely be a turnoff. But for those willing to give it a chance, they may find something that's all in good fun - a lively, brazen display of graphic mayhem and ridiculousness. With Mauro Fiore ('Avatar', 'The Kingdom') doing the photography, the movie displays a unique look of glossy sheen mixed with second-rate filmmaking grittiness, which is the only hint of Carnahan's intentions. What's ultimately hiding beneath all its self-indulgent revelry and chaos is an astutely organized celebration of a bygone genre. 'Smokin' Aces' is a strange concoction of splatterpunk ultra-violence and a cheeky revision of grindhouse panache, a salute to 70s low-budget, drive-in B-material normally billed as a double feature.
Although it flopped at the box office and was almost unanimously panned by critics, Carnahan's bizarre follow-up to a well-made police drama has amassed a respectable cult following that continues to grow. And while it may not be up to the level of Tarantino's expertise, 'Smokin' Aces' proudly wears its exploitation merit badge with smug delight and satisfaction. It's a fun and entertaining flick which delivers on its promises. Not much of a story, but plenty of rowdy, disruptive action with sleek style. Nothing more, nothing less.
Compared to its HD DVD counterpart, this 1080p/VC-1 transfer (2.35:1) appears to be identical, honoring the deliberate photography of Mauro Fiore and Carnahan's intentional visual style. Things don't look very impressive at the start, but after a few minutes, it becomes clear this is part of the effort to emulate the look of drive-in features with a contemporary, glossy sheen.
Immediately noticeable is the heightened color palette with a strong preference for yellow tints and steely blues, rendering prominent, forceful primaries and some unnaturally striking secondary hues. Contrast levels are also abnormally pronounced and running very hot in many scenes with many blown-out whites and sometimes glaringly distracting. On the plus side, it doesn't deter from the excellent picture quality of the image as visibility of random items and articles of clothing is clearly detailed and sharply defined. While skin tones can look a bit pale and erratic, facial complexions, especially in close-ups, are exceptionally revealing and wonderfully textured. Blacks are intense and profoundly deep, so much so that there are a few times of dark shadows swallowing up a bit of detailing. And the picture possess strong dimension throughout. Finally making its way to the Blu-ray format, 'Smokin' Aces' arrives with a first-rate picture quality fans are sure to love.
Accompanying the excellent video is an equally excellent audio presentation that perfectly matches the rowdy mayhem of unbridled violence and sheer anarchy. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is not only thunderous with gunfire, but it's also aggressive and uncompromising once we arrive at the final shootout.
Rear speakers are often in use with subtle, distant atmospherics, and Clint Mansell's ('Requiem for a Dream,' 'The Wrestler,' 'Moon') original score enhances the soundfield, keeping the audience engaged from beginning to end. With each sudden burst of action, discrete effects are handled expertly with near-transparent directionality and seamless pans that envelop the listener. In the front soundstage, channel separation is persuasive, the mid-range is cleanly delivered with an expansive presence, and imaging is appealing and wide. Amidst all the loudness, dialogue reproduction never falters and remains distinct throughout while low-frequency bass is forceful, precise and effective. The difference between this lossless mix and its lossy Dolby Digital Plus equivalent is minimal, but this high-resolution track is the preferred and best way to enjoy 'Smokin' Aces.'
The supplemental package on this Blu-ray edition of 'Smokin' Aces' mirrors those found in previous versions, except for a couple of new exclusive features.
Joe Carnahan's 'Smokin' Aces' is an adrenaline-fueled, gun-toting bonanza of action, and a cheeky salute to gritty 70s low-budget action flicks. With some fancy photography and visual design, the movie is sleek and entertaining. The Blu-ray edition arrives with an excellent A/V presentation and a nice collection of bonus material. Fans who have been holding out on a purchase will definitely want to pick this one up, but HD DVD owners may not see the need to upgrade.