Smokin' Aces 4K Blu-ray Review

‘The ho train has left the station…’

by Mark Costello
SRP: £20.00

Smokin' Aces Review

As a metaphor for his career, Smokin’ Aces works a treat for its writer/director Carnahan.

For a filmography that veers between gritty drugs procedural (Narc), pop cultural, kiddie friendly multiplex actioner (The A-Team), haunting meditation on aging and the human condition while facing nature at its most violent (The Grey) and one of the best time loop movies ever (Boss Level), it's been hard to pin down exactly what makes a ‘Joe Carnahan film’.

And with this, only his second film after Narc, he appears to have distilled all that disparate desire and very obvious cinematic nous and channelled it into a single work… a work that tries very hard to have its genre cake and eat it. With expectedly divisive results.

An FBI wire tap on a high-ranking Mafioso don picks up a hit being placed on Las Vegas magician-cum-gangland wannabe Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven in possibly his most odious role yet). And with a $1m pot being placed for whomever can bring the don Israel’s heart, every professional hit man, every unprofessional red neck and every one else in between descend on the Lake Tahoe hotel where Israel is holed up to try and do exactly what the film’s title asks so grammatically incorrectly…

Tonally veering between intense bullet ballet, comedy caper rammed full of OTT cartoonish characters and intense, gritty crime drama, it's difficult to grab a hold of the film even from its opening credits. And while this has proven to be somewhat problematic for some, both Carnahan’s writing and direction match this high-energy, steroid-induced slice of nutty mayhem perfectly. Not afraid to spend time dipping its toes in each genre pool, Carnahan does an admirable job of sketching these larger-than-life characters and giving them each their time to shine, even if some don’t stick around as long as you might be expecting.

It makes us wait for its action, teasing the long slow build up as all these characters descend on the hotel and start to intertwine and interact with each other as they make their way up to the penthouse where Israel is residing amongst a mountain of cocaine and a sea of naked prostitutes. And while certainly narratively convoluted, it feels absolutely organic to the world Carnahan has established and so by the time the bullets and the blood start flying, we have some serious skin in the game in terms of wondering who exactly is going to make it out of this mess of exploding limbs and leaking body parts alive.

... a gloriously unhinged hot mess of a movie

Grabbing a hip cast that will most certainly be one of your staples when you play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon before they all went supernova helps – from having Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) partner Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), for having Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leering over Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and for just having Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) be in the world’s tiniest panties and a giant papier mache rabbit head, its cast are as game as Carnahan, injecting a huge amount of energy into the film to keep it hurtling ever forward at a serious rate of knots.

The action is intense and bloody yet never quite as outrageous or as high concept as similar peers from the mid-00s action stable (such as Wanted and Shoot ‘Em Up), which means for some, it gets lost in the mix… never quite the all-out actioner promised, it struggles a little with its out-of-nowhere emotional ending that seems to have been copied and pasted in from another film entirely. And while it possibly overstays its welcome after the dust and blood have settled on the all-but-destroyed penthouse, with a plot twist that veers between completely forced and unnecessary and hilarious “**** you” on each rewatch, when the credits start to roll and you try to catch your breath, Carnahan has succeeded in giving us one of the most gonzo cinematic amalgams we’ve ever had the good/mis-fortune to witness.

A little too grubby and seamy for some (Piven is basically a sweaty concoction of every one of humankind’s worst character traits), a lot too OTT and cinematically anarchic for others, Smokin’ Aces is a gloriously unhinged hot mess of a movie. And certainly for this viewer, praise doesn’t get much higher than that…

Smokin' Aces 4K Video

Smokin' Aces
The included images are not sourced from the 4K disc.

Smokin’ Aces was shot on 35mm film with Panavision Panaflex cameras and Primo lenses. Its theatrical release had an early 2K DI produced and while there’s little detailed information around about the specs for this release, upon viewing, it appears that this is the basis for an upscaled 3840 x 2160p resolution image with the almost original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The disc also uses a 10-bit video depth, with High Dynamic Range (HDR10 only) and is encoded using the HEVC (H.265) codec.

We reviewed this Region free UK Ultra HD Blu-ray release on a JVC-DLA N5 Ultra HD 4K projector and a Panasonic DP-UB9000 Dolby Vision/HDR10 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

... this is an upgrade across the board

Carnahan’s gloriously OTT style of insanely fast edits, jerky handheld cameras and a garishly blown out and unnatural colour palette gives an image that’s hard to qualify. There is so much manipulation of the original image going on, it's difficult to get a handle on how well this transfer gets the source material onto the disc, because the source material seems so hyper-real and unnatural to begin with. However, what is apparent is that the image bests that of the previous 1080p disc in every department.

Fine detail is the first thing that’s notably improved. For a few random example, at 11:37, the huge ring on Davenia McFadden’s finger in the foreground of the shot has much clearer definition of the rocks that make up its central cluster; as a brilliantly red neck Chris Pine leers over the body of one of his victims at 32:40, the ribbing of his grubby wife beater is much more visible on this 4K than the previous disc; and at 1:37:59, as a sweaty Andy Garcia faces off against a teary Ryan Reynolds in the hospital, the fine wrinkles and pores on each of their faces are much starker and clearly defined than on the previous blu, rendering an image with overall increased clarity and certainly in the case of this last shot, more depth. It’s a shame that there is such inconsistency in the levels of detail across the film (purposefully so, rather than any fault of the transfer) as when they are good, here on this new disc they’re very, very good.

However, even when the image has been more overtly manipulated and fine detail drops back a notch, this new disc still wins out – heavy grain is better managed and better resolved: on the third image mentioned above, the grain between the two actors faces is much more evenly distributed across the image on this 4K disc, the previous blu having parts of this clump together in some really obvious patches.

The colours across the garish palette have a touch more life to them on this 4K disc – the blue sky over Pine’s shoulder in the second image mentioned above is a rich, crystalline azure on this new 4K, the older blu introducing a touch of dull teal to it that robs it of that last little bit of brightness and sparkle. Just prior to this at 32:27 as Pine walks up to the body at his feet, the clouds behind him are a crisp white on the 4K, whereas they have a distinct yellowish pallor to them on the previous 1080p disc. Overall, the colours are massively exaggerated across the entire film, however the 4K disc introduces a touch more range to them, highlighted by the blood on Reynolds’ shirt as he sits between the hospital beds at 1:40:38. More shades of red that are now visible give the blood stain the feeling that it has literally just poured out of someone, while the previous blu made it look like a flick of shop-bought paint had just materialised on his shirt. This colour reproduction is no doubt helped by the HDR10 grade applied, that adds a slightly darker hue to the overall picture – on this last image of Reynolds, the shape and bumps of his forehead are much clearer on the 4K disc thanks to deeper blacks pronouncing these shadows. Yet this is done without sacrificing overall brightness – together with the crisper whites and wider colour palette, the whole thing simply looks much less murky than the previous disc did.

Finally, for you numbers junkies out there, bit rates average approximately 50mbps across the entire film. But it fluctuates wildly, not helped by Carnahan’s regular freeze frames that drop the bit rate (as it should) through the floor.

For those wanting a pristine, consistent, naturalistic image, this is NOT the film for you. Heavily manipulated, with insane, blown out colours, fine detail that fluctuates between brilliant and non-existent, it’s a difficult image to quantify. However in comparison to the old blu, this is an upgrade across the board.

Smokin' Aces 4K Audio

Smokin' Aces

The 4K disc has the usual array of soundtrack options - lossless English DTS:X and French, Spanish and Mandarin lossless 5.1 soundtracks are all present and correct, while subtitles options include English for the Hard of Hearing, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.

We reviewed the Region free UK Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Smokin’ Aces on a Denon AVR-X4300H and a 7.2.4 array of Kef speakers (including the Q range and ci in-walls/in-ceilings).

... a very good action-orientated soundtrack

Heading straight for the DTS:X track, we’re reminded of the original disc’s throaty lossless 5.1 track: muscular, ballsy, unhinged, it’s everything the film is. Amidst the aural chaos of anarchic soundtrack choices, heavy artillery masquerading as gunfire and all manner of shouty accents, everything feels nicely balanced – dialogue is never lost, every sound can be easily discerned and it has everything you’d want from an accompaniment to the madness unfolding before our eyes: body, heft and an overall room filling presence.

The surrounds have some fun as the bullets start flying and we get some smile-inducing steering that has pin-sharp whizzes flying all around the speaker array. And yet, there’s little overt use of the new overhead layer for such effects – only a single discrete effect was noted across the whole film (as Andy Garcia’s helicopter descends into the maelstrom in the third act, it does so swirling around all four overheads). However, they are used to solid effect to expand the musical soundstage up and out of the front array – Clint Mansell’s score uses the overheads to fantastic effect, placing more instrumental effects as spot effects than the film actually does. It immediately immerses you in the world of the film and fills the hole of the overhead spot effects really quite nicely.

The other slight disappointment is that the LFE never hits quite as hard as you expect – as Taraji P Henderson finally lets fly with her huge .50 cal rifle, you’re expecting Rambo levels of A/V heaven, especially the infamous low end… but sadly it never hits quite as hard or quite as deep as you’re expecting. That’s not to say that the LFE is lacking overall, it’s not… it’s just this is the one part of the soundtrack that never quite cuts as loose as all the other elements of the film.

Very similar to the very good previous lossless 5.1 surround track, just with added expansion of the music score, it’s a very good action-orientated soundtrack that’s just not quite the obvious upgrade the visuals are.

Smokin' Aces 4K Extras

Smokin' Aces

The extras are included on both the 4K disc and the accompanying 1080p Blu-ray, which appears to be the exact same disc as previously released here in the UK. They are:

  • Two audio commentaries featuring Carnahan and accompanying friends and collaborators (only one is found on the 1080p blu, meaning one is new to this release in the UK)
  • Deleted and Extended Scenes – 10 minutes
  • Outtakes – 9 minutes
  • Alternative ending – 1 min
  • Various featurettes including:
    • The Line Up – 13 mins
    • The Big Gun – 12 mins
    • Shoot ‘em up – 5 mins

... the extras are included on the 4K disc

Having seen all these before, there’s likely nothing here to revisit if you have the previous disc. Carnahan’s commentaries are an acquired taste from memory – he feels ultra-defensive so it does make for a much spikier and more interesting commentary listen than normal. But it's very much as you were in terms of supplementals, with nothing new being added over the previous release except that new audio commentary for UK viewers (it was included on previous US releases of the film).

Conclusion

Smokin' Aces 4K Blu-ray Review

Smokin' Aces

A scuzzy rollercoaster ride of debauched cartoon characters that drives a .50 cal bullet hole through just about every cinematic genre you could shake a stick at. Seemingly powered by as much Columbian Marching Powder as Piven’s titular character, every element from the visuals, the music, the cast and the script convulse with anarchic energy that some find scattershot and broad, others will find energising and huge fun…

... how much you need this disc in your life now depends on how much you adore the film

The technical presentation of this new 4K release scrubs up the hyper-real visuals nicely, removing what now looks like a sheet of gauze from across the image, letting finer detail and more robust colours shine through. However the DTS:X soundtrack, while inheriting some fine bones from the previous 5.1 surround track, never quite utilizes the full speaker array to have as much fun as we want it to. The same spread of extras means as a full price upgrade, it should be approached with a modicum of caution and your view on how much you need this disc in your life now depends on how much you adore the film.

Smokin’ Aces is released by Universal in the UK on 4K UHD on the 2nd May.

Scores

Movie

.
.
8

Picture Quality

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Extras

.
.
.
.
6

Overall

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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