DVD Talk
Release List Reviews Shop Newsletter Forum DVD Giveaways Blu-Ray Advertise
Reviews & Columns
International DVDs
Video Games

Collector Series DVDs
Easter Egg Database
DVD Talk Radio
Feature Articles

Anime Talk
DVD Stalk
DVD Savant
High-Def Revolution
Silent DVD

discussion forum
DVD Talk Forum
DVD Price Search
Customer Service #'s
RCE Info

DVDTalk Info
Review Staff
About DVD Talk
Newsletter Subscribe
Join DVD Talk Forum
DVD Talk Feeds

Sponsored Links

Search: For:
Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Smokin' Aces (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Smokin' Aces (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Universal // R // April 17, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 29, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Buy from Amazon.com
Rent It
E - M A I L
this review to a friend
Printer Friendly
Universal's most recent barrage of day-and-date releases have really started to tap into the interactivity these next-gen formats have to offer, and Smokin' Aces not only lets viewers bookmark their favorite scenes but use 'em to create their own highlight reel. That means you can gut out the setup...damn near every line of dialogue...and string together all of the ultraviolent, deliriously over-the-top action into one visceral, visual assault.

Nekkid upside down torture. Gnawed-off fingertips. A concealed blade out of Marathon Man viciously and unrepentently stabbing into flesh. Sprays of bullets roadside. A playing card lodged in a rapper-turned-first-time-actor's forehead. A lesbian sniper with a .50 caliber Barrett -- a rifle engineered to pierce through the shells of armored tanks -- picking off swarms of FBI agents one by one, each round sending its victim careening from one end of the hall to the other. Lopped-off digits. A blood-spattered redneck with a mohawk flailing his chainsaw around and chopping off an overpriced chandelier in the hallway of a swanky Lake Tahoe resort. One FBI agent immersed in flames because...why the hell not? Picking off these butchers with zip-tied hands packing heat. A heavily scarred murderer masquerading as a dim-witted Russian flunky who's able to hide his kills amidst all the chaos.

I'm not rambling on about piecemealing together that sort of gleefully deranged highlight reel to be quoted on a pamphlet Universal hands out at trade shows or something: nope, this is actually how I watched Smokin' Aces for the first time. After seeing that unrestrained onslaught of blood 'n bullets, I didn't care how low its rating was on Rotten Tomatoes or how many critics called writer/director Joe Carnahan the Diet Shasta of Tarantino-slash-Tony Scott imitators. That ten minute blitzkrieg of unrelenting action was enough to sell me on picking up this HD DVD, but what I didn't realize at the time is that I hadn't just seen the best of the hypercaffeinated action in Smokin' Aces; that was all of it.

That's really the biggest stumbling point in Smokin' Aces. I mean, it's not high art, no, but it's not like Carnahan was trying to make The Seventh Seal and wound up with a flick about a strung-out Vegas magician-turned-snitch holed up in a casino hotel suite with a small army of cartoonishly over-the-top hitmen vying for the million dollar price on his head. (That's the plot summary, by the way.) Carnahan quickly assembles his legion of quirky characters, coasting on their charm and a cacklingly depraved sense of humor as he gradually nudges the pieces into place. It's that neverending nudging that eventually wears thin. I had a huge smirk on my face as the counter ticked to the 55 minute mark and the hitmen started piling into the elevators heading towards the penthouse suite of soon-to-be-snitch Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), hinting that hell was about to rein down in Reno. But it didn't...and wouldn't...for another twenty minutes.

Joe Carnahan seems like a nice enough guy, but he also strikes me as the kind of director who falls in love with an idea and refuses to let it go. Smokin' Aces is far too top-heavy, and when it does eventually get around to the sort of hyperkinetic action promised in the trailer, it's over and done with in, what, six or seven minutes flat? Carnahan attempts to liven up the extended setup by tweaking genre cliches, but the end result is hit or miss. He goes to such lengths to setup a big twist near the end that one key element is telegraphed much too far in advance, but the script does do a nice job keeping the audience on their toes. Carnahan establishes one subplot that seems certain to play a crucial role in the film only to be quickly and violently shrugged off as a red herring, and just because a big name may be highly billed on the poster doesn't make 'im bulletproof. The colossal body count and the half-billion spent shells littering the floor of the penthouse suite make the climax by far the highlight of the movie, but Smokin' Aces limps onto a lengthy, disinterested conclusion well after that has come and gone, and as much as a good bit of Carnahan's dark comedy sparkles, a one-eyed, featherweight 14 year old doing sped up karate moves for no reason in particular is pointless "...the fuck?" self-indulgence. I can't pretend to be a fan of Carnahan's storytelling-by-extended-exposition either.

I don't want to bag on Smokin' Aces too much, though. I actually did enjoy the movie, but the fact that I liked so much of it made its glaring flaws that much tougher to swallow. Carnahan's assembled a pretty strong ensemble that includes turns by Andy Garcia (chiming in with an abysmal Southern drawl), Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Tommy Flanagan, Maury Sterling, Nestor Carbonell, and Common and Alicia Keys in their big-screen debuts. Jason Bateman and Matthew Fox are barely in the movie but steal the couple of scenes they're in, particularly Bateman as the half-dressed, Herpes-infected, manic-depressive boozehound of a lawyer who sics the bail bondsmen Aces' way. Likewise for the blood-smeared Tremor Brothers, snagging the movie's darkest laughs when one of 'em fiddles with a gunned-down victim's lips and chats with him like a post-mortem ventriloquism act. Ryan Reynolds is the most anonymous of the actors in the movie, although as the straightlaced young FBI agent, he's saddled with the blandest role. As the lynchpin of the flick, Jeremy Pivens briefly channels Ari Gold's venomous yet inexplicably charming tongue but quickly settles into a teary-eyed, suicidal junkie that's not nearly as compelling to watch.

Smokin' Aces is almost a hell of a mindless popcorn action flick, but it's dragged down by a bloated runtime and clumsy attempts at tossing in something resembling drama and substance. Still recommended as a rental, though, particularly with the spectacular video quality of this HD DVD and the slew of interactive bells and whistles Universal has packed onto it.

Video: Smokin' Aces is one of the few HD DVDs I've been able to watch on a meticulously calibrated, ridiculously high end 1080p24 front projection rig as well as my more modest home theater, and I was deeply impressed with its crisply defined 2.39:1 high definition image on both setups. Its hyperstylized approach looks phenomenal on HD DVD, devoid of any intrusive film grain but still overflowing with fine object detail -- pores and facial textures in particular are clear and distinct -- and its exaggerated colors and high-contrast photography pop off the screen. There are no imperfections in the source material nor do any compression hiccups creep in. Some gearheads frown on this sort of stylized imagery, but to my eyes, Smokin' Aces is on the brink of perfection, and this is one of the very first HD DVDs I'd grab off the shelf if I were looking to show off my home theater. Exceptional work from Universal.

As has been the case for all of Universal's day-and-date releases, Smokin' Aces is a combo title with the standard definition DVD tacked onto the flipside of the disc.

Audio: As hyperactive as this sort of kinetic action flick ought to be, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is exactly what you'd keep your fingers crossed for: an aggressive mix teeming with directionality as slugs zip across an expansive soundscape, meaty, punchy low-frequency assaults, and dialogue that's rendered flawlessly even in the blood-spattered chaos of the climax. A first rate action soundtrack.

There aren't any dubs this time around, although subtitles are offered in English and French. Oddly enough, the DVD side of this combo disc includes subtitles in Spanish that were left off of the HD DVD.

Extras: Exclusive to this HD DVD is another of Universal's "U-Control" interactive experiences, this time featuring picture-in-picture footage and an Assassin Tracker. The picture-in-picture material is a mix of making-of footage from the set and talking head interviews: Smokin' Aces' writer and director naturally gets the most screentime, and actors Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, Jason Bateman, Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson, Ray Liotta, Common, Chris Pine, Andy Garcia, and Ryan Reynolds also pop in for a quick comment or two. The more interesting bits include Bateman discussing both of the thongs he managed to wear throughout his one and only day of filming, Keys throwing "this shit" script in the trash thirty pages in before gradually warming up to it, and Pine having his intricate tattoos applied. There's not that much footage, though -- I doubt that it runs for even a third of the movie in total -- although the upside is that there's really not any overlap between this and the other extras on the disc. Nothing remarkably insightful or anything, but it's not a bad excuse to give the flick another pass.

Much slicker is the Assassin Tracker that pops up ten times throughout Smokin' Aces. It's a leaderboard that tracks the location of each of the assassins and lists what they're up to even if they're not on-screen at the moment, and their movements across the globe are mapped via Google Earth and a 3-D wireframe of the hotel. It also takes the time to list the current odds of each killer being the one to take down Israel, their current cover, and who's still alive and kickin'.

The U-Control isn't an either/or proposition -- the Assassin Tracker and Picture-in-Picture footage never appear simultaneously -- and although extras are usually thought of as something you delve into after watching a movie, I'd bet the Assassin Tracker plays even better the first time through.

The rest of the extras are the same as the DVD edition without any boost in quality. First up are two audio commentaries, both of which are anchored around writer/director Joe Carnahan. He pairs up with editor Robert Frazen and a stack of beers for the first of 'em, and their quippy, half-buzzed commentary turned out really well. This energetic and self-deprecatory track doles out all the information you'd expect from a commentary while overflowing with personality. With an editor on-board, a lot of the discussion naturally revolves around how certain scenes were shaped and evolved over time, struggling with the producers for, um, pussy, homoerotic undertones in one scene that way-hetero Nestor Carbonell glossed over, Taraji Henson using some real-life anguish to fuel one particularly emotional sequence, and an extended riff about Carnahan's off-hand use of "de rigueur".

The other track is...well, I guess it's supposed to be an actors' commentary, although Christopher Holley, Zach Cumer, and Common are barely in the flick, and most of 'em admit to not really having seen it before. Between their unfamiliarity with the movie and Carnahan's best comments all being recycled from the first track, if this commentary sounds it'd be like a waste of time, that'd be because it is.

Four deleted and extended scenes (10 min.) are anchored around one of the bail bondsmen who seemed like he was being set up for a key role in the flick. Virtually all of 'em are just brief, meaningless chunks of dialogue tacked onto existing scenes, and the only proper deleted scene knits the bondsman's subplot together with the main story. Offered separately on the disc is a minute-long "cowboy" alternate ending that follows takes the same general course but tosses in a pistol. There's also a ten minute gag reel that gets its biggest laughs from the, uh, fact that Affleck's not going to star in The Color of Money II anytime soon. All three sets of additional footage are presented in standard definition and letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen.

The disc piles on a few short featurettes while it's at it. "The Line-Up" (14 min.) is a set of lightweight "hey, this is who I play in the movie!" comments from the cast about their characters, and "Shoot 'Em Up" spends five minutes on prepping the actors for all the high-caliber gunplay and plastering them in squibs and blood packets. The meatiest of the featurettes is "The Big Gun", a twelve minute hybrid of a production journal and a traditional making-of piece. Joe Carnahan's enthusiasm for the material is borderline-infectious, and he speaks at length about his approach to the material, such as making mixtapes for the cast to help get them in character. These featurettes are all in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen, for anyone keeping track at home.

Compatibility Issues: Like quite a few of Universal's recent combo releases, Smokin' Aces has been reported as unplayable on quite a few second-gen HD DVD players. Once I wiped a fleck off, the disc played on my Toshiba HD-A1 without any problems whatsoever, but owners of more recent models may want to do more research or give Smokin' Aces a rental first before shelling out thirty or forty bucks.

Conclusion: Uneven but still a hell of a good time, Smokin' Aces would be an easy recommendation with a leaner runtime or maybe another high-octane assault or two. A dark sense of humor and an unflinchingly brutal climax leave this HD DVD still worth a couple of clicks at Netflix, if just to marvel at one of the better looking high-def releases out there and to goof around with some of the interactivity. Wouldn't recommend whipping out a credit card to buy it sight-unseen, tho', especially with all of the compatibility problems that have been reported. Rent It.
Popular Reviews
1. Jabberwocky: Criterion Collection
2. Misery: Collector's Edition
3. Le Samourai
4. Cease Fire - 3D
5. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (Re-release)
6. The Philadelphia Story: Criterion Collection
7. Kill and Kill Again
8. Atomic Blonde
9. Young Doctors in Love
10. Beyond The Darkness

Sponsored Links
DVD Blowouts
Alien [Blu-ray]
Buy: $19.99 $9.99
Sponsored Links
Release List Reviews Shop Newsletter Forum DVD Giveaways Blu-Ray Advertise
Copyright 2017 DVDTalk.com All Rights Reserved. Legal Info, Privacy Policy, Terms of Use