January is typically the month when most studios dump those films they think won’t succeed on our laps. Unfortunately this was the case with Smokin’ Aces, a film that has such an odd sense of humor that we can’t help but smile at what’s in front of us. As we know Joe Carnahan’s previous effort Narc is a dark, gritty film with little to no humor. How could a man with such a dark, violent mind direct a film with as much violence but such a level of humor?
Our film opens with two federal agents …itting in a surveillance van late at night. Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are eavesdropping on a conversation a few mob bosses are having. Before you re-read that sentence, yes Ryan Reynolds the typical college film guy is playing a serious man here. Talk about weird huh? Moving on though, we soon learn that Buddy “Aces” Israel, a Las Vegas stage magician, a man who absolutely loves hanging out that Las Vegas crowd (read pimps, gangsters, drug dealers) made the big mistake of pretending to be a gangster himself. It turns out that Israel made a big mistake by trying to impress his buddies. Such a mistake that has the FBI agreeing to work with Israel as he rats out his varying Mob connections in hopes of being protected.
Primo Sparazza (the big mob boss) obviously doesn’t want this to happen so he puts a hit out on Israel’s head. A few step up (one lead by Ben Affleck, another a group of lesbian assassins lead by Alicia Keys) in hopes of claiming this large cash prize, in hopes of all trying to meet up with Buddy to have a nice one on one talk. Oh yeah, also to literally cut out poor Buddy’s heart.
Director Joe Carnahan, whose last film was the excellent Narc succeeds in this directorial effort simply because he presents a film filled with so much comedy and so many laugh out loud sequences yet also presents a film with characters and sequences that realize that they don’t need to be taken serious. Think of that sentence as a child knowing he doesn’t have to take himself serious simply because he’s juvenile in his behavior. The different groups all have a goal in mind of killing Buddy to collect on a bounty (well that’s clear for the bounty hunters at least), but all the groups try to kill him in such a comedic manner that I found myself smiling many times throughout the course of the film. Not necessarily because I found it funny that a man was on the verge of dying but moreover because now, especially after listening to Carnahan’s comments on the included commentary, I feel I may understand what Carnahan was aiming for in this film. He wasn’t trying to develop a serious assassin film but rather a film that showcased his dark humor that he has briefly hinted at in his previous efforts.
With this film and Narc, director Joe Carnahan has become that type of director that I’m definitely going to pay more attention to from now on. He sense of humor may not have been completely up front in his previous efforts, but he has showed us his ‘Ace’ here. Recommended on all fronts. Just be sure to go in with a sense of wanting to smile and enjoy yourself.
Presented in a 1080p, VC-1 Encoded, 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Smokin’ Aces sports one of those that may not be the first disc you might grab to demo off your rig, but rather a disc that will definitely prove to those early skeptics that HD is definitely the way to go.
Color usage was great with solid blacks, blues and grays. Grain was noticeable in a few areas making me wonder if the first few minutes of the film, with the notice of a bit of grain in the darker sequences, would be an indication of the type of transfer this one might be (somewhat flat). Luckily the transfer immediately improved with the film’s grain in check and items like video noise and EE (somewhat noticeable) being kept on the low end. Smokin’ Aces obviously benefits from being a recent film (and a failure at that). This easily shows in the print’s sharpness and quality. Again this one isn’t the new demo disc, but rather another winner in Universal’s column of solid HD transfers.
Arriving with the standard English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, the provided audio was somewhat of a mixed affair for myself.
The oddity I experienced was that so many of the film’s more robust effects (the gun shots and the booms) resulted in some of the film’s dialogue sequences to become hard to understand. Take the film’s opening sequence. So much is occurring (audio wise) that I found myself having to lean forward and practically place my ear near the speakers in hopes of trying to hear what was happening. Anyhow the film’s surrounds, as mentioned above, were loud and robust resulting in the rears getting a nice workout. Dynamic Range was noticeable with a handful of discrete effects showing themselves. The sub also got quite a workout, which was a pleasant surprise as Universal’s last two efforts on HD (Children of Men and The Good Shepherd) showed a sub that tended to be quiet. While this was a pretty solid effort, the annoyance of the drowned dialogue hurt this one a bit in my book.
- Alternate Ending: This short ending (running about 1 minute) offers pretty much the same conclusion as the theatrical ending.
- Deleted Scenes/Outtakes: Running 10 minutes, we’re given 4 different scenes and one extended scene. The scenes definitely felt that they were deleted, as they didn’t really do much for the film at hand. The Outtakes run 9 minutes and were actually pretty funny as the actors intentionally messed up their lines.
- Shoot ‘Em Up: At 5 minutes in length, this one was pretty funny as it showed the training the actors went through to prepare for the film. Another interesting aspect was the ‘blood packet’ aspect.
- Audio Commentary with director Joe Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen: In Commentary 1, a funny immediate occurrence sets the mood for this one. Both participants inform us their drinking beer while doing this. I’m immediately thinking this one is going to lead to a lot of stupid comments about the film. Such isn’t the case here as both individuals remain interesting and a joy to listen to. As they dissected each scene, I personally enjoyed the level of insight the two gave about the cast, the shooting process and the film itself. This one’s well worth a listen.
- Audio Commentary with director Joe Carnahan and actors Common, Christopher Holley and Zach Cumer: Oddly enough we get a commentary with the director and a few of the lesser known actors instead of some of the higher profiled actors. Anyhow, this one was rather dull (maybe because I listened to it right after listening to the above commentary) and disappointing. Carnahan makes reference after reference about the shooting only causing the other participants to kind of suck up to him forcing a laugh. You were already paid guys! Skip this one folks.
- The Line-Up: Here we’re given 2 minute looks into five of the film’s main characters in Buddy Israel, the bounty hunters, the FBI agents, the female assassins, and the Tremors.
- The Big Gun: Running 12 minutes, this one looks into Carnahan himself and the type of director he is. While this was more of a self-appreciation for Carnahan, it was interesting to see the type of man Carnahan is.
- Assassin Tracker: Now this feature is kind of like the feature included on Miami Vice. Where in that feature we could track the boat race, this one allows us to track the films assassins to Reno. It also allows us to track the varying assassinations they complete while in Reno. While this was definitely a cool feature, I wonder if it’s one I’ll be looking at more than once.
- Picture in Picture: The best thing about Picture in Picture is that Universal continues to offer it on their Combo formatted discs, which is one way to justify the higher price. This PIP features cast interviews, comments from director Joe Carnahan, actors Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia and Ben Affleck, a look into the making of the film and a few different on the set glances. Considering my enjoyment of the film, I absolutely loved this one and I’m sure fans will agree with me.
HD DVD Exclusives
Universal has given Smokin’ Aces quite the impressive HD DVD especially when you consider that this film failed at the box office. With a solid video presentation, commendable if sometimes overly powerful audio, a few great features and a funny, if twisted film, Smokin’ Aces comes recommended for a weird, fun time at the movies.
Special Features List
- Alternate Ending
- Deleted Scenes/Outtakes
- Shoot ‘Em Up
- Audio Commentary with director Joe Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen
- Audio Commentary with director Joe Carnahan and actors Common, Christopher Holley and Zach Cumer
- The Line-Up
- The Big Gun
- Assassin Tracker
- Picture in Picture