Smokin' Aces, the blood-soaked neo-Tarantino action/comedy from writer/director Joe Carnahan, is dripping with atmosphere, style, and energy--so much, in fact, that we wonder whether it's all flash. Unfortunately, these suspicions are pretty much on the mark. There is much to recommend in Aces, but not enough to keep it from feeling like a step backwards for Carnahan, whose previous film Narc was a lean, tight, hard-boiled cop movie with an edgy visual style that was nearly undercut by its heavy heart and overwhelming sadness.
Aces, on the other hand, is all pyrotechnics--and while they're expertly done (there's no doubt that the guy can build an action sequence), it's a pretty empty experience. It also suffers from about eight unnecessary characters and three too many subplots; working on a broader canvas than the intimate Narc, Carnahan simply lets his story get away from him.
This is a shame, since there are flashes of greatness in the resulting picture. Some of them are in the performances; Ryan Reynolds, for example, turns in a stand-out dramatic performance as an FBI agent (this was his first truly impressive piece of work). Ray Liotta gave one of his finest performances to date in Narc, and while his role here (as Reynolds' partner) is nowhere near as meaty, he does get some chewy dialogue (if memory serves, he gets to use the word "donnybrook" at one point) and he and Reynolds have a nice, natural chemistry.
Alicia Keys (in her film debut) is tough and sexy as a hit woman; Taraji P. Henson is entertaining--if a little over the top--as her better half. Rapper Common gets a nice scene where he tells his boss exactly what he thinks of him. Ben Affleck turns in an entertaining (if brief) appearance as a bail bondsman, and Jason Bateman is hysterical as a shifty lawyer, giving the film some early, much-needed laughs after an overload of expositional information. And Jeremy Piven, as the object of everyone's derision, is nearly perfect--a sweaty, bloated, coked-up mess that you can't take your eyes off of.
The usually-reliable Andy Garcia, on the other hand, has an icy demeanor that plays a lot better than his screwy accent. And several of the rogue's gallery of hit men could have gone by the wayside--I'm thinking particularly of the batshit crazy redneck Tremor Brothers, who are neither entertaining nor interesting (though it's fun to look for an unrecognizable, pre-Kirk Chris Pine as one of them), as well as Martin Henderson's left-for-dead ex-cop, whose story thread goes nowhere slowly.
However, the sequence where all of the film's threads (good and bad) converge on Piven's penthouse is awfully tight, and the resulting shoot-outs are well-made, exciting action cinema--blazingly cut while never unclear. In fact, Carnahan might have been smarter to have focused on the film's action/thriller elements and dropped its illusions of comedy (and, therefore, the elements that only exist for comedic purposes).
There is a bit of a twist at the film's conclusion, though it's not that difficult to see coming (not that this prevents Carnahan and editor Robert Franzen from doing their best imitation of the reveal sequence in The Usual Suspects). However, once that's out of the way, Carnahan puts Reynolds into a room, points his camera at him, and gives us a final scene that is so efficient, concise, and effective that you're tempted to forgive the mistakes the film made in getting there. Smokin' Aces misses more than it hits, but it sure as hell has its moments.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
So here's a wonderful new feature: before we can even get to the main menu, the 50GB disc informs us that, via BD-Live, it is loading "a fresh preview from the Internet"! What's that, you say? My Blu-rays already take too long to spin up, and the interminable wait for a download to see something I don't even want to see amounts to cruel and unusual punishment? Well suck it up, sucker!
Smokin' Aces is a bright, flashy, pulpy movie, and the 1080p/VC-1 transfer is handsome without glossing over the film's rougher edges. Color saturation is deep and details are impeccable, while the occasional blown-out white levels are steady and blacks are deep and uncrushed. Skin tones are natural and nicely textured (you can see every pasty pore on Piven's face). Grain is occasionally heavy, but apparently by choice and not by fault of the transfer, while contrast is rock-solid and the depth of the 2.35:1 image is impressive as well.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is demo-quality material, if for no other reason than the climactic (and extended) shoot-out sequence, which balances the flurry of gunfire, panning effects, piercing richochets, and the pounding score (by the great Clint Mansell) with ease, slamming the audio into every available speaker and giving considerable weight to the LFE channel. Elsewhere in the picture, dialogue is crisp and clear, music is well-modulated, and busy environments (like restaurants and casinos) are immersive.
Spanish and French 5.1 tracks are also available, in addition to a DVS (Descriptive Video Service) option. English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also offered.
The copious bonus features kick off with four Deleted and Extended Scenes (9:35 total); none of them add much. Next is an above-average Outtakes reel (9:29); highlights include an Airplane! reference, Carnahan surprising his actors by popping up in scenes, and Affleck failing miserably on the pool table. "Cowboy Ending" (1:05) is an alternate, and much less effective, version of the closing scene. "The Lineup" (13:27) is a five-part profile of the groupings of characters; taken together, it amounts to a fairly conventional making-of featurette. "The Big Gun" (11:54) is a profile and extended interview of writer/director Carnahan, utilizing extensive behind-the-scenes footage of him having a great time on-set. "Shoot 'Em Up: Stunts and Effects" (4:53) is a brief but informative piece about the cast's extensive gun training, the hardware, and the heavy squib work of the shoot.
The disc also includes two Audio Commentary tracks: one with Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen, the other with Carnahan and actors Common, Christopher Holley, and Zach Cumer. The filmmaker commentary is fairly informative, while the actor track is a little more laid-back and chummy; however, I'm not convinced that two full commentaries (with some repeated info) were necessary for such a lightweight film.
BD-Live users can watch the film with the picture-in-picture option of corresponding set footage and interviews; I'm always a fan of this feature, and it's well-utilized here. Less essential, but technologically intriguing, is the "assassin tracker" option, which allows you to keep track (via Google maps) of where the various bands of assassins are at various points through the story.
Smokin' Aces is clearly getting the Blu-ray treatment as a promotional tool for the new direct-to-video sequel, Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball. There are plenty of deep catalog titles that I'd rather see get the deluxe Universal Blu-ray treatment, but that's neither here nor there; Smokin' Aces is too damned busy and entirely too derivative, but it's still a pretty good ride.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.