Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball
Directed by P.J. Pesce
Starring Tom Berenger, Clayne Crawford, Tommy Flanagan, Maury Sterling, Martha Higareda
Universal Home Entertainment
Release Date: January 19, 2010
Direct-to-video sequels tend to put me ill at ease, and with good reason. More often than not these movies are cynical, cheapjack attempts by cash-strapped studios to squeeze every possible nickel out of even their most modest theatrical successes. Next to Walt Disney Pictures no other studio has been to the DTV sequel well more times than Universal Pictures, as their numerous quickie follow-ups to The Land Before Time, Darkman, Tremors, and American Pie have shown. I have nothing against movies bypassing cinemas and going direct to video store shelves; in the past many fine films, some much better than anything Hollywood has forced upon us, have made their premiere exclusively at our local Blockbuster Video or in the Redbox kiosk in front of the neighborhood Wal-Mart often because they‘re the kind of movies that cannot be easily marketed into the moviegoer conscience like the cookie cutter fare that clogs the multiplex screens week in and week out. Plus every so often a rare sequel comes along that proves to be a cut above to the original (see The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, and Hostel Part II). But sequels to moderately profitable theatrical releases are as a rule made on budgets a fraction of what the originals were made for, and customarily they’re made without the participation of the filmmakers and cast that made the originals great (because they can‘t be afforded). Leave it to Joe Carnahan, a firebrand filmmaking talent who makes his best movies outside the creative dead zone of Tinseltown, to accept the challenge of making a direct-to-video sequel the right way.
Having first emerged at the tail end at the 1990’s with his flawed but fun indie debut Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane, Carnahan proved to be the real deal: a filmmaker who could overcome the slightest narrative shortcoming in his movies with raw, energetic direction and extract superb performances from his casts. His directorial debut was a worthwhile effort but it couldn’t compare with his infinitely superior follow-up, the hard-edged 2002 police drama Narc, which earned Carnahan raves for his top-notch direction and featured career-best performances from his starts Ray Liotta and Jason Patric. But for almost five years after the release of Narc Carnahan couldn’t convert those rave reviews into the more prestigious directing assignments he coveted. He wanted to make a film version of Mark Bowden’s book Killing Pablo, about the rise and fall of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and had actors Javier Bardem and Christian Bale lined up to star, but the major studios went running for cover. Later Carnahan nurtured a big screen adaptation of the James Ellroy novel White Jazz with George Clooney in the lead role but it fell apart in pre-production. Finally in 2006 he got the chance to make a movie from his own script, the over-the-top, hyper- violent comic thriller Smokin’ Aces. While it was an fun and entertaining movie with a solid cast Smokin’ Aces felt beneath Carnahan’s talent especially when it was weighed against the darker and complex movies he wanted to make but couldn’t. Still after three years the movie remains a decent watch and despite a shaky plot with characters and situations that go nowhere after being set up it contains a lot of welcome oddball touches that set it apart from most generic action flicks. Even though it didn’t light the box office ablaze Smokin’ Aces turned out to be a hit on DVD and cable, so when Universal expressed a desire to make a direct-to-video sequel Carnahan made sure to be a major player in its making.
Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball (referred to as Smokin’ Aces: Blowback, the movie’s filming title, consistently in the audio commentary and bonus features) isn’t sure if it’s a sequel or a prequel to the original but it follows the template of the first movie without referencing it at all (with the exception of a mention of Primo Sparazza, the aging Mafioso who sent the events of the original in motion). The story focuses on a mysterious individual who has placed a $3 million bounty on the head of Walter Weed (Tom Berenger), a wheelchair-bound FBI information analyst who’s been with the Bureau for three decades. A team of agents led by Special Agent Zane Baker (Clayne Crawford) has been charged with Weed’s protection without knowing why Weed is the target in the first place, and Weed himself isn’t exactly sure either. Baker and his team move Weed to a fortified bunker hidden under a Chicago jazz club secretly run by the FBI and wait it out as the prize has a deadline.
Meanwhile the $3 million bounty has brought out the heavy hitters in the world of efficient elimination: Finbar “The Surgeon” McTeague (Vinnie Jones), an Englishman who is introduced hammering nails into the skull of his latest quarry only to impair his sight and speech; Ariella Martinez (Martha Higareda), whose specialty is killing her targets with a poisoned kiss; deadly master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan), a holdover from the first film; and also returning from the first Smokin’ Aces is the fan favorite Tremor family, a gaggle of Neo-Nazi knuckleheads with even stranger methods of killing than their competitors, headed by father Fritz Tremor (Michael Parks) and consisting of his sons Lester (Maury Sterling, returning from the original and supporting the theory that Assassins‘ Ball is a prequel) and the child-like Baby Boy (C. Ernst Harth) and daughter Kaitlyn (Autumn Reeser), a.k.a. “AK-47”, who uses her sexuality as a weapon so much her own brothers get aroused in her presence (headstrong older brother Darwin must have sit this mission out as he was too busy being the new captain of the Starship Enterprise at the time, if this is a prequel). With the deadline for the hit fast approaching Baker and his team prepare for an apocalyptic confrontation with the cream of the killing crop while trying to figure out the connection between Weed, who knows more than he lets on, and the elusive “Hal Leuco” and a shadowy group known only as True Patriot.
For a movie made exclusively for DVD and for peanuts compared to the original film’s budget, Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball turned out to be pretty damn good. Truth be told I was expecting it to be as dull and cheaply-produced as most of Steven Seagal’s current flexography. But for most of its running time Smokin’ Aces 2 was often as funny and exciting as Joe Carnahan’s original movie. It helps a great deal that Carnahan returned to serve as an executive producer and also helped concoct the story. Under the direction of veteran DTV helmer P.J. Pesce (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Olatunde Osunsanmi and Olumide Odebunmi, who concocted the story with Carnahan, and Tom Abrams), who has previously cut his teeth on such direct-to-video cash-ins as From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (which also co-starred Michael Parks and had the distinction of being a lot better than From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money) and The Lost Boys 2: The Tribe (no comment), the movie rips along at a steady pace and adheres to the story structure followed by the original. The first act introduces all the characters, from the Feds to the hit men (or if you prefer, the more politically correct “hit persons”), the second act follows the characters as they put their various plans into motion, and the third and final act brings everybody together in one location and watches it all go up in a spectacular explosion of blood, severed limbs, and strange but oddly predictable plot twists. Hey if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. At least we’re getting a choice slice of iPod-age grind-house silliness that the cast and crew may take seriously but we never will because we sure as hell know better.
But because of the shorter running time (even the unrated version clocks in at 88 minutes) Assassins’ Ball has to move a lot faster than the original. As a result a lot of the quirky humor that made the first Smokin’ Aces enjoyable gets kicked to the curb this time around in favor of focusing more on the plot and the action sequences, which at least are executed with the flair and energy of a polished Hollywood production. However that doesn’t mean Pesce and Carnahan don’t get to have a little fun between the dense plotting, endless gun battles, and RPG (rocket propelled grenade)-assisted mass destruction, but it’s mostly in fleeting moments I wish there were more of. Among those moments that made me laugh was seeing the Universal logo from the 1930’s open the movie, a line of dialogue from McTeague that originated in the immortal western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, how circus clowns figure into the Tremor family’s plot to take out Walter Weed, Weed comparing meeting Ronald Reagan to Moses talking to God, and Fritz Tremor scolding son Lester for using an RPG in a close quarter battle. The action scenes pack a bit of punch as well with the stand-outs being an attack on a military base by the Tremors because they needed some serious firepower for the mission and the final act bullet-laden clusterfuck which begins with a Mexican standoff (having seen a lot of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies, and a few from their shameless pretenders, seeing another Mexican standoff caused my eyes to roll) and evolves into something fierce and extremely messy. Thus there’s rarely a dull moment in Smokin’ Aces 2, even when Tom Berenger has dialogue.
This brings me to the acting, also better than it had any right to be. Clayne Crawford serves the same function as Ryan Reynolds did in the original, which is to look and act tough while trying to make sense of the absurd situation he finds himself in, and he makes for a commanding presence with nary a misstep. His Ray Liotta surrogate is a bunch of no-name Canadian actors who spend the majority of their screen time bickering with each other or getting killed, so I’ll skip them. Vinnie Jones’ role as McTeague amounts to an extended cameo (he shows up at the beginning and isn’t on screen until the finale) but at least he’s not exactly playing off his trademark screen persona of a violent Cockney thug the whole time and he even gets to show a little old-school movie star cameo in a bar scene with the lovely and talented Martha Higareda, who also doesn’t get much in the way of character development but manages to put the Smokin’ in the movie’s title and has a smoldering presence that actually makes you want to root for her. Tommy Flanagan (Gladiator), who could be Jones’ Irish counterpart since he’s also best known for playing a lot of hot-tempered thugs (and has a nasty scar on his face that will ensure his career as a character actor for years to come), injects his vicious killer Lazlo Soot with more menace and insidious intelligence than he was allowed in the original. Finally there’s the Tremor family. Veteran actor Michael Parks, who has been seen in recent years playing a variety of tough guys in movies like Grindhouse and Kill Bill (both volumes), tears into the role of grizzled family patriarch Fritz with sadistic glee. Sterling and Harth both make for a good pair of armed idiots and Reeser has a blast (sometimes literally) turning her O.C. persona on its spray-tanned head.
The only noticeable weak link in this cast ironically turns out to be its biggest name. Top-billed Tom Berenger, once a reigning king of manly movie badasses thanks to an acting resume that includes such cinematic classics as Platoon, Major League, Sniper, and of course The Substitute, gives one of the more listless and uninspired performances of his career as the beleaguered analyst Walter Weed. It’s true that Berenger isn’t a young man anymore but in Smokin’ Aces 2 he looks tired and positively defeated even when his character is called upon to serve some kind of purpose to the story. In order to justify calling the movie Smokin’ Aces 2 since the story has no connection to the Buddy “Aces” Israel character played by Jeremy Piven in the original; Weed is given a character trait of reading tarot cards that never pays off. As someone who grew up on Berenger’s movies it’s disheartening to see the man reduced to doing movies strictly for the paycheck and not even bothering to hide his lack of enthusiasm. The performance doesn’t derail the movie but it could’ve been way better because Berenger has been better in the past. The writers, clearly enamored by the actor’s presence in the movie, tossed in an in-joke tribute to some of Berenger’s past achievements that lands with a thud due to its obviousness, but it’s the thought that counts.
P.J. Pesce does his finest directing work to date, and given that his movies he directed up to this point we’re mostly shit that’s saying a lot, and is backed up by a fine technical crew that makes Smokin’ Aces 2 look a lot more expensive than it really is, including director of photography David Geddes, production designer Chris August, and editor Angela M. Catanzaro. Pesce directs with a genuine visual flair that makes even the slower scenes pop and crackle and at times it looks like he took a few cues from Oliver Stone and Carnahan himself, because if you’re going to crib then crib from the best. Only the music score by Tim Jones is forgettable especially since it’s not extensively utilized in the film having give way for a kickass soundtrack featuring bigger names than one might find in a direct-to-video sequel including Iggy and the Stooges, James Brown, Queens of the Stone Age, Evanescence, Curve, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and a somber Elvis Costello singing “Complicated Shadows” over the end credits. The soundtrack emphasizes classic and modern rock over the old-school R&B and soul that featured heavily in the first Smokin’ Aces and also features covers of the 70’s rock classics “Ballroom Blitz” and “Cherry Bomb” by a group I’ve never heard of called Dead Rock West, but Exene Cervenka, formerly of the seminal American punk rock outfit X, sings lead vocals and director Pesce plays additional guitar on “Ballroom Blitz.”
Direct-to-video sequels usually have me reaching for a bottle of Xanax before the end, but Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball turned out to be a damn fine way to kill ninety minutes of my time. It’s by no means a great movie but I had a lot of fun with this movie and I guess I owe my thanks to P.J. Pesce for taking his directing game to a new level and Joe Carnahan, the gifted filmmaker who took a personal and creative involvement with this movie and helped make what could’ve been another assembly line action flick destined to haunt video store “Previously Viewed” bins into a far more entertaining movie than it had any right to be.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has given Smokin’ Aces 2 a top-notch DVD presentation usually reserved for a major studio release. The picture and audio quality are outstanding. The film is presented in a crystal clear 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture with English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks that gets its job done admirably. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included. The DVD features an R-rated cut of the film and an unrated version that runs only two minutes longer. Since I only watched the unrated version and neither cut has ever been seen until the DVD’s release I can only assume the added material in the unrated version is mostly scene extensions, brief character shadings, and additional blood and gore. Plus there’s a sex scene featuring Reeser in the beginning that might’ve been extended a bit as far as I know.
The healthy selection of bonus features kicks off with a candid, laidback audio commentary from director Pesce and executive producer Carnahan. The two filmmakers talk shop for the most part going into nuts-and-bolts detail about the production but they’re clearly proud of their work here (as well they should-it’s a good film) and enjoy making occasional jokes at the film’s expense and each other’s as well. All in all a solid commentary worth listening to at least once, and from then on in dipping into during the slow parts of the movie.
Ten minutes of wisely deleted scenes and a surprisingly unfunny 6-minute gag reel kick off the rest of the extras. The meat of the bonuses can be found in a quintet of mini-documentaries focusing on various aspects of the production: “Behind the Scenes with Joe Carnahan” (6 minutes) does exactly what the title implies and features Carnahan, Pesce, and select members of the cast and crew discussing the genesis of the film; “Confessions of an Assassin” (26 minutes) takes a more detailed look behind the scenes of the production of a video diary intercut with interviews with members of the cast and crew; “Ready, Aim, Fire: The Weapons of Smokin’ Aces 2” (4 minutes) devotes special attention to the various firearms used in the movie, and we’re talking some heavy firepower here ladies and gentlemen; “Cue the Clown” (3 minutes) focuses on one of the more insane moments of the movie and the Tremor clan’s most unique contribution to the overarching mayhem of the story; and lastly “The Bunker Mentality: Designing the Set” (6 minutes) looks at the creation of one of the movie’s principal locations, the elaborate underground bunker used as the safe house where Walter Weed is stashed by the FBI.