The next time the movie moratorium committee meets, here’s hoping that they can sneak the over-the-top balls-out gunplay action effort onto their already swollen agenda (somewhere between the lame RomCom, fright flick remakes, and the stand-up joke fest CG family film). A couple of decades back, when visionaries like John Woo illustrated how powerful and dramatic a slow motion firefight could be, we were more than willing to pay attention. Now, several years and several hundred imitations later, there is no need to wallow in such stylized self-aggrandizement.
When Joe Carnahan released Smokin’ Aces back in 2006, the revved up arch ammunition experience was seen as something of a revelation. Sure, the characters were thin and more or less cartoonish, but with a wanton weaponry appreciation matching few and a fever dream pitch to the presentation, it looked like the man responsible for Narc and Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane had finally reconfigured the action film. But in the last couple of years, his varied vision has been usurped and bettered by Michael Davis (Shoot ‘Em Up) and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted).
As a matter of fact, both of the aforementioned follow-ups are so much better than, so much more prickly and revolutionary compared to Carnahan’s comic book bravado, that you almost forget Smokin’ Aces actually exists. Leave it to Universal to offer a retail reminder. Not only are they bringing the original film to the updated digital formatting of Blu-ray, they are releasing a Carnahan produced direct to home video sequel entitled Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassin’s Ball. Helmed by P.J. Pesce, responsible for such questionable knock-off fare as From Dusk Till Dawn 3, Sniper 3, and Lost Boys: The Tribe, we are once again thrown into a world of quirky killers, overly complex double crosses, and enough simulated swagger to make your head spin. That doesn’t mean the results are tolerable, however.
The story centers on Walter Weed (a tired Tom Berenger), a desk jockey FBI agent who is suddenly the target of some rather high profile assassins. They include Arielle Martinez, a poisons expert (Martha Higareda), Finbar McTeague, a specialist with a scalpel and other medical equipment (Vinny Jones), the Tremors, a group of retarded redneck rejects (Maury Sterling, Michael Parks, Autumn Reeser, and C. Ernst Harth) and Lazlo Soot, master of disguise (Tommy Flanagan). Their goal – take out Weed at exactly three a.m. on April 19th. Initially, bureau back-up Agent Baker (Clayne Crawford) can’t figure out why this nameless nobody is part of some international killing cabal. But with a $3 million bounty on Weed’s head and some information from his crack computer staff, he soon makes all the connections necessary. In the meantime, our mercenaries make with the high octane murder.
At 90 minutes, Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassin’s Ball is really two different films. The first is an hour long set-up, each character getting their individual beats and basic backstory (abilities, efficiencies) before heading to a Chicago jazz bar to fight it out with their fellow freelancers. As we go along, we are supposed to be interesting in all the government black ops intrigue, slow dissemination of crucial expositional information, and eccentric personality points – except, Smokin’ Aces 2 is neither entertaining or engaging. It’s dull and draggy, like an unsure comic telling a particularly long and excruciatingly complicated joke – badly, one might add. We grow weary from all the “aren’t we peculiar” elements, from Ms. Higareda’s scant sex appeal (she’s no Roselyn Sanchez) to the overdone hillbilly nonsense of those Devil’s Reject wannabes, The Tremors.
Throughout, Pesce tries to mimic the hyper-stylized editorial ADD attributes of the once current music video like approach. There are split screens, overlays, oddball framing, and angles so indifferent to what is going on that you’d swear the director was purposefully focusing on someone’s knees vs. the byplay between the actors. Even when Baker is trying to gather information to piece together the far too multilayered puzzle present, you get cuts so rapid, shot selections so bizarre, that you almost need to rewind the film and try to follow the tainted cinematic logic involved. When we finally discover what we think is the solution (Minor Spoiler: Weed may not be what he pretends or seems), we’ve forgotten most of the premise.
The second part of the film is all finesse. Pesce brings all of his players under one fancified roof, and then proceeds to shoot the works – sort of. This entire last half hour is made up of violence so mindless and stunt work so silly that, in some undeniable manner, it has to be seen to be believed. It begins, weirdly enough, with The Tremors, a circus cannon, and some exploding clowns (you read that right – hostages dressed in face paint laced with dynamite). Someone clearly thought this was clever (they were wrong!). Then, Jones’ meathead medico falls head over for Higareda’s dangerous damsel, tossing in a too late to matter piece of emotion heft that neither actor can manage. As stuff blows up and bodies pile up, Pesce pushes the denouement, forcing explanation and evidence into the already heady overdrive. By the time of the “twist” (yes, it’s one of those Usual Suspect type reveals), we just want things to calm down. We don’t care about Weed, his ID, or the reason behind the hit. We just want some SILENCE!
As for the performances, they’re what you’d expect from a direct-to-DVD title. On the Blu-ray itself, Carnahan and Pesce step up for a commentary track that ignores the movie’s many flaws to celebrate its outdated, in-your-face, fussiness. Along with a bunch of EPK level featurettes that do little to limit the film’s flopsweat, we are stuck with one of the more unnecessary releases of the last few months, a meaningless return to a long forgot (potential) franchise. Indeed, Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassin’s Ball should have come out three years ago, just as the first effort was getting a big home video push. Waiting around this long has allowed braver, better titles to steal its already breached thunder. Hopefully, after the filmic freeze is in place, directors like Carnahan and Pesce will realize the inadequate return their attempted entertainment bring. In the case of this unnecessary sequel, the lame far outweighs the legitimate.