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HD DVD Review: Smokin’ Aces

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Written and directed by Joe Carnahan, Smokin’ Aces is a lot of things. It’s a dark comedy, light action drama, and crime thriller. Unfortunately, something critical is missing from that list: entertaining. It has a chance with the right audience, but this dull exercise wants to be far more intelligent than it really is.

Smokin’ Aces is a basic concept, convoluted by numerous useless characters in an attempt to keep the audiences paying attention to every word even when it means nothing in the end. Buddy Israel, brilliantly played by Jeremy Piven, has made a deal with the FBI to rat out the mob. This leads to a number of contract killers looking to take his life, which leads to numerous dialogue exchanges until the eventual action takes place.

The biggest problem is that the finale, easily the best part of this one in terms of acting, directing, and plot, really invalidates much of what the viewer has seen. Some of the contract killers are given extensive screen time and have nothing to do with the overall story line. They exist solely to take part in the film's single action scene with any substance behind it. Even this disappoints.

Putting the pieces together in the end reveals a tightly wound twist that prevents any gaping holes in the story. Ryan Reynolds becomes a key character, wonderfully playing a FBI agent. In fact, all of the performances are believable.

The tone shifts all over the place, ranging from a sick, twisted comedy at one point, into an emotional drama near the end. It’s hard to become involved in the film, not knowing if what you’re watching it meant to be taken seriously or is beginning the shift towards becoming a serious crime drama. Scenes of a hyperactive kid become some of the most bizarre you’ll ever see in a wide release Hollywood film, and waste screen time with only minor laughs in a movie that consistently is filled with useless moments.

Smokin’ Aces will definitely have an audience, though it’s a film that will have no middle ground in terms of how entertained you were. Most will enjoy the multiple twists in the final 15 minutes. Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to find here in terms of any value.

Encoded in a sharp VC-1 transfer, the film’s bright, crisp look translates beautifully to the format. Color is simply stunning, and black levels show loads of depth. Detail in close ups are astonishing. It runs into trouble with solid backdrops that make grain and mild compression artifacts more visible than they should be. Contrast is set high, though this is an intentional effect matching the wild choice of style in the color.

Incredible bits of bass are the highlight of this Dolby Digital Plus audio effort. When the soundtrack picks up towards the closing of the film, the LFE begins pounding underneath the action, flawlessly mixed to avoid drowning out other aspects of the sound. Rear surround work is on the light side, with gunfire sadly staying placed in the front channels. Separation is fine, though there should be far more going on in all the speakers when the action becomes heavy.

While the film is a miss, the HD DVD version offers some of the best features on the format to date. The in-movie feature used Google maps to track the progress of the assassins, easily accessible with Universal’s U-Control feature. While not necessarily a needed piece, it’s a fun accompaniment to the film and an excellent example of how the new technology can enhance viewing.

Other U-Control features, ranging from video to pictures can be accessed as you’re watching, or through the chapter selection screen which will take you direct to the spots of the film where relevant information is presented. Also while watching, two commentaries are available, one with director Carnahan and editor Rob Frazen. The second features Carnahan again and cast members Common, Zach Cumer, and Chris Holley. There’s plenty to discuss, and the cast member track is lively with joking along with stories from the set.

Deleted scenes were proper cuts, and last a little over nine minutes. Some hilarious outtakes run around the same length as the latter, especially from Ray Liotta and Ben Affleck. An alternate ending is a little over a minute, and doesn’t work anywhere near as well stylistically or dramatically as the one chosen for the finished film.

The Line-Up is a somewhat wasteful, discussing the characters on a surface leaving this in the realm of promotional material. The Big Gun is a focus on the director, loaded with some funny behind-the-scenes material. Shoot-em-up is a brief look at the special effects and action. While a HD combo disc, all special features are on the HD side as well as the SD.

Some critics have compared the film to Tarantino’s dialogue-driven efforts, but the character discussions are nowhere near as enthralling here. The action is low on gore, and stylistically it’s something else entirely. Don’t fall for the comparison.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.