A fairly unconventional action movie, Joe 'Narc' Carnahan's relatively low budget 2006 sleeper hit Smokin' Aces surprised audiences with its stylish, fast-cut direction, sharp script, high action quotient and ensemble cast of familiar faces, including: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Jeremy Piven and Alicia Keys, to name but a few. It soon gained something of a following, and you could totally see why. Even those who were a bit dubious over the Director's choice of direction to follow-up his seminal Narc (which single-handedly saw the resurrection of Ray Liotta and, at least temporarily, Jason Patric), eventually forgot all their preconceptions and accepted that this particular Director may just be capable of both gritty, dark cop thrillers and super-stylish action-thrillers. I am guessing that his upcoming reinvention of the classic 80s TV show, The A-Team will fall into the latter category.
In the wake of the surprise success of Smokin' Aces, the Studios - in their infinite wisdom - commissioned a sequel/prequel/thing-with-vaguely-the-same-ideas-which-can-be-bunched-into-the-same-strange-category. Boasting a reduced budget, a litany of distinctly b-movie stars, and the backing of Carnahan only in the producer chair, the release went straight-to-dvd (the place where the first film actually did best). So, does it have any of the same panache as the original? Or is it just cashing in on the name, and on the timely release of the Blu-ray of the original?
Walter Weed is a low-level FBI office worker who, for some unknown reason, has had a 3 million dollar price tag put on his head. Whilst they try and figure out why anybody would want this ageing, wheelchair-bound desk-jockey assassinated, the bureau decide to implant him into a heavily protected bunker, several floors below a fake bar, where all the workers are FBI Agents and where snipers patrol the rooftops. The open contract that has been put out has garnered the interest of myriad assassins around the world, and since the $3M is payable only if the hit is carried out at a precise time on a precise date they are all heading towards the same spot at the same time, which could make things a little bit... messy.
I had heard truly terrible things about this movie. It's not like I'm unfamiliar with Straight-to-DVD movies, I'm currently eagerly awaiting the upcoming Universal Soldiers: Regeneration (reuniting Van Damme and Lundgren 18 years after the successful original) and the DTV dungeon is currently the only place I can get my regular Steven Seagal fix (although Machete may see him return to the screens, albeit for just a cameo). But Smokin' Aces 2 had received abysmal reviews, so bad that even I was scared.
Honestly, it's not such a bad film at all. Sure, if you saw it in the cinema, you'd be disappointed. But you probably wouldn't have been bored. Which is saying something. This deserves its place in the Straight-to-DVD ranks, but it is certainly one of the better of its ilk. Although it does not have the star draw of the original (and that is one of the biggest areas in which it is lacking), it adopts the same flashy, stylish, fast-edit style of the original, has a sharp enough script and certainly has a fair few colourful characters. The pacing is good: the introductions of the various assassins and set-up of the story basically taking up the first act; a little exposition and planning during the thankfully short second act; the third act extended and consisting basically of a protracted gunfight, with plenty of twists thrown in to shake things up a bit. The individual ideas may have all been borrowed (and from much better movies) but they play quite well together, a strangely familiar yet fresh instalment in the Smokin' Aces franchise.
The characters help quite a great deal, with many of them seeming far more interesting than the actors they got lumbered with playing them. On the assassin front we have a couple of returning lesser characters from the original (subsequent - so you know they're going to survive) movie: the face-changing Lazlo Soot (who at least allows multiple actors to play the character) and the inbred redneck Tremor clan brother Lester (this time accompanied by his sister, his other brother, and his dad). The Tremor sister makes for an engaging, foxy, twin-machine-pistol-wielding psycho, and she's not the only sexy chica assassin on board, with a femme fatale / black widow seductress in the mix - whose speciality is poison lipstick.
On the side of the good guys, things are unfortunately a little less engaging, with the almost indiscernible bunch of FBI Agents suffering massively from not only a lack of a single, even vaguely, familiar face (I think I recognised the lead Agent as a minor character in the new season of 24), but also some pretty lame characterisation. They all act - and even dress - like extras from The Untouchables (the Prohibition-era-built bunker and Chicago setting doesn't give them any excuse) and it feels totally incongruous with the mobile phones and latest technology on display. Of course, this is where a few more familiar actors would not have gone astray (Ernie 'Ghostbusters' Hudson has the tiniest cameo in the world, and one of the bit part actors in Smokin' Aces gets to come back through some silly twist that says he was actually working undercover in Vegas, but still they're nevertheless practically all unknown).
Really, no movie can survive on retirement-age Tom Berenger, Vinnie Jones and that recurring guest star chick from The O.C. and they could have done with a little more talent on board. Berenger is a likeable actor, and he's capable of powerhouse performances - Platoon - but he's well past his prime. The last thing I saw him in was Sniper 3 (straight to DVD) and whilst that too was not a bad movie for a DTV fix, it was incomparable to even the most lacklustre cinema productions. Here his Walt Weed has a similar card-trick capability to the central character in the original movie, but whilst he manages to come across as different enough (despite the similarities), his restrained, understated performance is a little monotonous and boring. Vinnie Jones was ok when he worked with Guy Richie, but he's also been slumming-it-up in DTV hell for a few years (even starring with Seagal!), and his nonsensical character here (why does torture make someone a good assassin?) is an extended cameo at best.
The female assassins are, at least, more interesting - and not just for the obvious reasons (they both have some random necessity to wander around in their underwear - or in latex - for the majority of the movie) - they are far more colourful characters. Hot Latino chica Martha Higareda (from the underrated and solid Keanu Reeves thriller Street Kings) is a pitch-perfect seductress, at once capable of changing from seemingly innocent and vulnerable prey to cold-blooded killer, savouring the deaths that take place right before her eyes. The O.C.'s Autumn Reeser is also engaging, but mostly for different reasons - because it's just so crazy to see this good-girl from the much-loved US teen drama, naked and shooting someone point-blank in the face with an AK-47. I really never expected her career to go in this direction - and whilst her character had a pretty irritating voice, she was totally wild.
It's clear that, while this was ostensibly directed by a certain P.J. Pesce (the man to go to for decent straight-to-dvd sequels: Lost Boys 2, From Dusk till Dawn 3, Sniper 3), it was made under the ever-watchful eye of Joe Carnahan. The Carnahan Smokin' Aces seal of approval has been stamped all over every single overly-stylised segment, every title-card introduction and every fast-cut. The film may not have been directed by the man, but it might as well have been - for a third of the budget I doubt Carnahan could have done a better job. The sets and set-pieces stand up reasonably well, the digital cinematography only causing problems in scant few scenes, and the shootouts remaining engaging (even if none of these damn assassins - or FBI Agents for that matter - seem to be capable of hitting anything! One of the assassins unloads her twin pistols without hitting a thing, but does get someone with a knife!).
Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball is a fun film full of flaws. The explosive dwarves are pretty silly and the Tremors family get far too much screentime (the script was originally focussed even more on them, so I guess we should be grateful), and - if you muted the volume - you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a movie pitching the bad guys from Mad Max: The Road Warrior against the characters from some unmade Untouchables TV remake, but the film is strangely engaging, entertaining for its thankfully streamlined duration and colourfully unusual. It may be an obvious younger, less talented sibling to the Smokin' Aces big brother, but it is cast in the same mold - and it's such a wacky, insane mold that it cannot help but be entertaining. If you remember this is straight-to-DVD for a reason (well, about ten good reasons actually) and that it is never going to be as good, as flashy, or as star-studded as the first film, it still makes for an enjoyable second instalment. This is comfortable night-in viewing, best swallowed with a few beers and an open mind, and the kind of thing that probably deserves to be on your ever-burgeoning Lovefilm wish-list much more than some of the other titles on there.
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