Reviewing Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball is slightly more complicated than it looks. The question is simple: is it a good movie? Well, it's certainly not great. Nothing here finds the door in the glass ceiling of quality that most DTV pictures tend to find themselves under, anyway. But then, most people also have apparently come to hate -- not dislike, but hate -- the original Smokin' Aces, another movie that isn't great, but has garnered a serious reputation I don't quite think it deserves as one of the most disappointing films of the last decade. Lots of people liked Narc. Lots of people saw this trailer, which sets a psychotic, awesome bar the film can't live up to. Lots of people wanted more out of the cast, which puts names like Ben Affleck and Andy Garcia at the top of its alphabetical listing, even though these famous faces are only around for about ten or fifteen minutes each. And I can see how it all adds up to crushing disappointment for some people, but I still kinda like Smokin' Aces, in a guilty pleasure way. There are lots of flaws, but it works in fits and spurts, thanks to the performers and the characters. With this in mind, while the flaws are much worse, and the fits are shorter, I'd say the same thing about Assassins' Ball.
Despite the "2" in the title, this second Smokin' Aces is a prequel, I guess. Really, it's more like a remake, with the same gist of a plot, in which several of the world's greatest assassins all focus their energies on one high-priced target. In the original, it was Jeremy Piven's Buddy "Aces" Israel, this time, it's Walter Weed (Tom Berenger), an aging, wheelchair-bound FBI analyst who's baffled as to why someone would stick a $3 million bounty on his head. The FBI's plan, for whatever reason, involves secretly transporting Weed to a hidden bunker underneath a bar for the night (since, through complications too pointless to try and understand, if Weed isn't dead by 3 AM, the killers don't get paid). Nonetheless, word about the man's location gets out to the deadly Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan), Finbar McTeague (Vinnie Jones), Ariella Martinez (Martha Higareda), and four members of the Tremor family (Maury Sterling, Autumn Reeser, C. Ernst Harth, and the great Michael Parks -- three of whom are playing new characters, since Chris Pine has since shot to megastardom, and Kevin Durand is busy shooting a Ridley Scott movie), all of whom convene on the bar as the hour approaches.
In the movie's opening minutes, Assassins' Ball is a mess, with director and co-writer P.J. Pesce staging an overload of visual imagery. The movie's color timing goes insane places. Close-ups are too close for comfort. Dialogue is laid over dialogue. Several names pop up on screen in an order too arbitrary to keep track of. If I hadn't been reviewing the movie, I'd have given up right there. But while Pesce's style moments never quite work (the absolute worst being bizarre green-screen going on outside the windows of the Tremors' garbage truck as they drive along, in a seriously ill-advised homage to Natural Born Killers), and the action scenes are constantly thwarted by the lower budget (prepare for lots of 2000-era computer generated explosions), he does eventually calm down significantly, easing off on the camera tricks and allowing the movie's few positives room to breathe.
Those positives are basically Tom Berenger as Weed and Clayne Crawford as Agent Baker, the man in charge of Weed's safety. Berenger acquits himself nicely, lending some enjoyable (if not particularly weighty) gravelly-voiced character-actor gravitas to his role. I mean, it's not like I invested in his backstory, which has the man mourning the loss of his wife and daughter in the car accident that left him partially paralyzed, but he is fun to watch, in a B-action movie kind of way. At the very least, Berenger gets the best dialogue in the movie, the peak of which is Weed's hilarious comparison of the experience of meeting Ronald Reagan to Moses meeting God. Crawford, likewise, is an amusing surrogate for Ryan Reynolds as a slightly dickish but well-meaning FBI captain, and if Universal decides to turn Smokin' Aces into the next American Pie, I wouldn't mind seeing Crawford in a couple more of these flicks. I also have to point out Christopher Michael Holley, who plays agent and bartender/saxophone player Malcolm Little. Some fans might remember that Holley played Buddy Israel's guard Beanie in the first Smokin' Aces, and the way these two characters are connected is hilariously absurd.
So, two agreeable lead actors and a host of fitfully amusing villains? I can live with that for 90 minutes while the two sides pour boxes of bullets into each other in creatively violent ways, especially given the film's pointedly satisfying conclusion. I mean, when it comes to Smokin' Aces 2, it all depends on the viewer's standards, and not only do I think that most people already know whether or not they have any interest in seeing this movie, I also think it's perfectly reasonable to use Smokin' Aces 1 as the only relevant standard on which Smokin' Aces 2 is judged. Having seen the film, even though this is a cheap, silly film with more bloodshed than brain cells (I didn't even bring up the movie's terrible decision to get political in the third act), I have a hard time saying that Aces 2 fails more than the average sequel does in comparison to its predecessor. Yeah, it's far from a masterpiece. But it's also the kind of movie where characters devise a way to use clowns as explosive weapons. Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.
The Video and Audio
Dolby Digital 5.1 has that issue that a lot of direct-to-video movies do, which is not that the gunshots and sound effects just don't have the same depth and richness that those used on bigger movies do. The mixing could be exactly the same, but somehow, it's like the aural equivalent of films that are obviously shot on digital -- it feels artificial. There's plenty of directional action going on in the chaos that envelops the bar, and the track will be just fine if all you want to do is hear the movie, but the mix on Smokin' Aces 2 lacks the ingreedients it needs to really hit home. French and Spanish 5.1 are also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish and French subtitles.
Next up is a series of featurettes. Behind the Scenes With Joe Carnahan (6:30) is a short discussion of the genesis of the project, with Carnahan, screenwriters Olatunde Osunsanmi and Olumide Odebunmi (the former being the writer/director of 2009's The Fourth Kind), and director P.J. Pesce. "Confessions of an Assassin" (25:58) is the more general making-of featurette, illustrating the actual production process. It's not bad, actually. There are a couple funny hat-related discussions (about one that Pesce is missing and one that may or may not be from "Fat Albert"), on-set, between-take interviews, and mockery of behind-the-scenes featurettes, although Carnahan calls a scene in Assassins' Ball "Hard-Boiled times a thousand". Uh, no. Wrapping things up, the clips "Ready, Aim, Fire: The Weapons of Smokin' Aces 2" (4:17), "Cue the Clown" (2:58), and "The Bunker Mentality: Designing the Set" (3:37) are pretty average (but not dull) looks at specific aspects of the production.
Finally, the film comes with an audio commentary by director/co-writer P.J. Pesce and executive producer/co-writer Joe Carnahan. Carnahan has always struck me as being a "nice" version of the Troy Duffy persona, which is certainly preferable to the actual Troy Duffy, but still on the grating side sometimes. The commentary is basically Carnahan telling Pesce how much he likes everything in the film, and Pesce responding in as humble a manner as possible. It's rare that I vote for a single participant on a commentary track, because if they have a limited amount of things to say, they can easily become boring, and again, I really do think Carnahan's a nice guy, even if his personality gets a tad tiring, but I think I'd have preferred a track with just Pesce flying solo, because Carnahan occasionally interrupts Pesce while he's actually talking about some experience of the production. They also trot out the worst, oldest commentary joke ever, which is not to watch the commentary before watching the film. Har har. Side trivia: all of the featurettes and the commentary track still refer to the movie as Smokin' Aces: Blowback rather than Assassins' Ball.
No trailer for Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball has been included, but previews for American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, Universal Blu-Ray, A Serious Man, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, Couples Retreat, and Love Happens play before the main menu. The deleted scenes and featurettes are also conveniently subtitled in English, French and Spanish.