"Smokin' Aces" is director Joe Carnahan's caffeinated follow-up to "Narc", the powerhouse flick that got him noticed (and got him picked for "Mission Impossible 3", which he left, due to conflicts.) "Smokin'" has a simple plot: popular, drugged-out and jerky Vegas lounge performer Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven) has information on a mob boss and is willing to talk to the Feds. The mob has put a $1m price on Israel, and a group of various criminals has just bought tickets to Vegas to get the magician in his Lake Tahoe penthouse suite. The characters explain and explain and explain what's going on in a story that's ultimately pretty straightforward.
Keeping Buddy alive for the moment are a pair of FBI agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) and the fact that one of the hitpeople - some skinheads, a female duo (Taraji P. Henson and, in her debut, singer Alicia Keys), a disguise artist (Tommy Flanagan) and a South American (Nestor Carbonell) - may just see fit to take the other one out of the picture, leaving the path to the $1m just a bit clearer. There's also some bail bondsmen (including Ben Affleck), a lawyer and what seems like about ten other various odds and ends characters thrown into the mix.
Unlike his cold, steely "Narc", "Smokin' Aces" sees Carnahan's style go for a mix of Tony Scott and a touch of Guy Ritchie, and the result, while not disagreeable really, just seems like a carbon copy - while it certainly fits the film, it doesn't really seem like anything that hasn't been done before, better (while few liked Scott's "Domino", that film's hallucinatory visual style was risky and I thought it worked for the film.)
The other issue with "Aces" is that it's not enough and altogether too much. There's so many characters here that some of them serve no point aside from explainig a piece of the plot and then getting taken out of the film. The majority of the characters are barely developed at all, leaving the actor to make an impression, and the only ones that do are Reynolds (in a surprisingly straightforward performance) and Keyes, who gives a smoky, moody debut here. There's not much plot (or point) here, but there's a ton of explanation for what's going on. The film's action scenes are messy and brutal (the film is a hard R): the characters turn the locations into a battle zone and there's no real choreography (or attempts to make the geography clear) here, just violence. Carnahan could have wrapped the picture up at about 90 minutes and kept it whip-fast (see the more enjoyable "Go"), but instead it goes on another 15 and includes a rather absurd twist towards the end.
"Smokin' Aces" is a rush of a picture, but it's underdeveloped characters and general excess results in distancing the audience. The film has its moments and a few of the performances do stand out, but one wishes that Carnahan would have followed up "Narc" with something as substancial and memorable.
VIDEO: "Smokin' Aces" is presented by Universal in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film's stylized palette looks perfectly fine here, with strong saturation and no smearing or other faults. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum and the picture appeared free of print flaws or artifacting. Sharpness and detail were usually very good, although a few scenes could look a tad softer.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation isn't entirely smokin', but the audio presentation is still quite good. Surrounds flare to life during the film's intense gun battles, throwing various sound effects at the viewer from both sides, as well as some reinforcement for the score. Audio quality was terrific, with punchy effects and clear dialogue even in the most intense sequences.
EXTRAS: Commentary from director Joe Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen, as well as commentary from Carnahan and actors Chris Holley, Common, and Zach Cumer We also get 4 deleted scenes and 9-1/2 minutes of outtakes (some of which - like Affleck not exactly proving to be a master pool player - are hilarious). There's also an alternate ending, short featurettes on the cast, a longer featurette on the director and a 4-minute piece on the film's stunt work.
Final Thoughts: "Smokin' Aces" is a rush of a picture, but it's underdeveloped characters and general excess results in distancing the audience. The film has its moments and a few of the performances do stand out, but one wishes that Carnahan would have followed up "Narc" with something as substancial and memorable. The DVD presentation offers fine audio/video quality, along with quite a few extras. Those interested should rent it.
The Film B-