Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces remains an under-appreciated piece of action-puzzle genre filmmaking elevated by poignant characterizations and surprisingly deft dramatic work from a wide-net cast. To wit: Ryan Reynolds and Jeremy Piven naysayers have to admit, the original Aces gives both actors the chance to exercise dramatic muscle their average roles never allow.
Carnahan is on board only as producer for the direct-to-DVD prequel Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball, which falls into so many of the traps the original avoided, it’s hard to believe the film is still watchable. Tom Berenger plays Walter Reed, a senior FBI data analyst who is wheelchair-bound following an accident that killed his family years before. A man with a head full of history and a knack for card tricks, Reed finds himself sequestered in a security vault thanks to a very specific contract on his life. The FBI team protecting Reed seems solid until the moment they disperse…and why everyone didn’t stay in that well-stocked vault is a mystery.
Gunning for Reed are a slew of international assassins who could only exist on film: the towering Brit with knowledge of the brain’s pain centers (Vinnie Jones as Vinnie Jones); a buxom seductress who kills bad priests and industrialists with a kiss; the Tremors, a family of hyper-violent, neo-Nazi hillbillies led by the always enjoyable Michael Parks; and Lazlo Soot, the scar-faced, silent master of disguise who is the only character to survive both films (seasoned character actor Tommy Flanagan deserves better movies than this). All converge on the jazz club above the vault, and things quickly devolve into one massive shoot-out, which includes (I believe) a cinematic first: exploding clowns.
Aces 2 is a poor excuse for a film, but prompts a couple of bigger questions:
Are squibs really that expensive? The trend in the past few years to supplant traditional gunfire impact live-effects with computer-generated ones has been frustrating as it is rarely done well. The squib allows for a very realistic, very visceral effect on film; the CG blood spray is so obviously false that it removes you from the power of a scene.
Is storytelling really that hard? The original Aces has a terrific setup: 18 minutes of character introductions that are more than the prequel’s random acts of violence. They sew together a full history for and project the direction of the entire film, with style and humor. It’s not just flash editing, pointless gun battles or smoke-and-mirrors trickery that are explained by a newcomer in the last two minutes.
Ultimately, Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball makes the mistake of not surrounding its glossy, amateurish mayhem with any sort of human connection; there’s no emotion, little story, and worst of all, no drama to be found. The original film, for all its shenanigans, was literally and figuratively about heart; the prequel doesn’t have the slightest trace of one.