[box cover]

Smokin' Aces

Never has a movie had as extensive an opening info-dump as Smokin' Aces (2007), and never has a movie done it so well. Director Joe Carnahan hits the ground running with three different sets of characters simultaneously explaining the film's convoluted premise to each other, zipping back and forth between conversations, voiceovers, and flashbacks to bring the audience up to speed. The rundown: There's a million-dollar bounty on the head of a Vegas magician named Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), who's spent his career hobnobbing with mobsters and dipping his toes into armed robbery, allowing him a full-access backstage pass to the workings of every major Mafia syndicate operating in Nevada. The FBI is trying to broker a witness-protection deal with him, with two agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) doing the grunt work under orders from their cold-as-ice boss (Andy Garcia). So the mob wants him dead, and the bounty's brought several sets of assassins to Israel's not-so-secret hideout in the penthouse of a Lake Tahoe hotel — there's bounty hunter Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck) and his two partners (Peter Berg and Martin Henderson), hitwomen Georgia (Alicia Keyes) and Sharice (Taraji P. Henson), a bald assassin with a genius for disguise (Tommy Flanagan), and the Road Warrior-meets-Gwar nihilist trio the Tremors (Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling and Chris Pine). Oh, and there's talk of some out-of-town hitman mysteriously known only as "The Swede." Once the premise is established — and that takes a good long time, but entertainingly so — the mayhem begins with Feds, bounty hunters and hitmen all descending to get their piece of Israel, who's been holed up for weeks with a couple of bodyguards and an endless supply of hookers and coke. As chaotic as it sounds, Carnahan — whose previous films Narc (2002) and Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane (1998) were both absolute messes with moments of inspired brilliance — brings an enthusiastic love of testosterone-drenched action to the table, with a giddy disregard for Hollywood convention. The talent-heavy cast all get adequate rewards for their appearances here with each character, no matter how small, getting plenty of gun-totin' action and juicy dialogue. Piven is terrific as the imploding magic man, lashing out at those closest to him as he feels the noose tightening, and Ryan Reynolds — mostly known for his whip-smart comedic timing in films like Just Friends (2005) and Van Wilder (2002) — is great in a surprisingly meaty role with some real complexity. Even the smallest roles are well-cast, and Jason Bateman could have conceivably stolen the entire film if his drug-addled, sexually perverse lawyer character had been given any more screen time. Smokin' Aces is a brutally violent film and a genuinely thrilling one, and darkly hilarious, to boot. As huge of a mess as this film could have been, it's Carnahan's most assured work so far, with exquisitely inventive camerawork, witty dialogue, inventive carnage and a distinctive voice. All in all, a rip-roarin' great ride.

Universal Home Video's disc offers an excellent anamorphic (2.35:1) widescreen transfer with excellent color saturation and contrast — the film has a very stylized look, with some scenes deliberately washed out, others deliberately grainy, and this transfer does all of it justice. The DD 5.1 surround audio (English, with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles) is very good, with an excellent use of all channels to give a terrific surround experience, especially during the chaotic shoot-outs. Extras include two commentary tracks, one by Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen, and another with Carnahan with second-banana actors Common, Christopher Holley, and Zach Cumer — the first involves the consumption of beer, so it's a lot breezier and off-the-cuff. Also on board is a very funny outtake reel, which reveals that Affleck can't shoot pool to save his life; an alternate ending; four extended and/or deleted scenes (9 min.); and a small handful of featurettes — "The Line-Up" looks at the film;s characters (2 min.), "Shoot' em Up: Stunts and Effects" looks at what's involved in shooting gunfights (5 min.), and "The Big Gun" is a rather self-indulgent but still interesting explanation by Carnahan of why he's so enamored of his own film (12 min.). Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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