Not long after the certifiably insane Smokin' Aces came and went and then sold a LOT of dvds, we started hearing all sorts of little stories about sequels, prequels, or any sort of follow-up. Clearly someone at Universal (besides Aces director/co-writer Joe Carnahan, I mean) saw the potential in keeping this franchise afloat, even if that meant remanding the subsequent sequels to the "lesser" direct-to-video market. And even those who adored Smokin' Aces would have to see the logic there: Pretty much all the characters from the first flick were dead, and even those who survived ... aren't exactly huge stars.

So off to the video shelves we go with Smokin' Aces 2: Assassin's Ball, and this time the directorial reins are in the hands of P.J. Pesce -- and if you're looking for a guy to bang out a direct-to-video sequel, Mr. Pesce is your man. His previous films include From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter, Sniper 3, and The Lost Boys 2: The Tribe. And it's with no irony whatsoever that I opine the following: Smokin' Aces 2 is better than all three of those movies. Put together. It's clearly low-budget and frequently low-minded, but there's certainly some fun to be found.

Those who hit play expecting a "true" sequel to Smokin' Aces may find themselves confused and disappointed. As far as I can tell, the sequel has nothing to do with its predecessor aside from the appearance of two minor-but-colorful assassins. (I'll leave it to the fans to discover who's back for Part 2.) But the plot is pretty much the same as the original, and one of the main characters does play with a deck of cards pretty often. Beyond that, Smokin' Aces 2: Assassin's Ball (previously known as Smokin' Aces 2: Blowback, incidentally) is a perfectly stand-alone action flick. The plot is this: a wheelchair-bound FBI agent named Walter Weed (Tom Berenger) is spending his last boring day at work before retirement. But a fellow agent (the surprisingly excellent Clayne Crawford) catches wind of something monumental: it seems that a half-dozen of the world's toughest assassins have been hired to kill Walter within the next 12 hours. Act II is basically all of the good guys and bad guys getting into position. Act III is some truly enjoyable mayhem.

Pesce does a fine job of keeping the tone of garish anarchy that was so evident in Carnahan's flick -- at least as well as he can on about 1/3 the budget -- and much of the "shoe leather" of the first hour is actually fairly sharp and amusing. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Feds are presented in an amiably low-key fashion and that the crazy killers (Vinnie Jones, Michael Parks, Autumn Reeser, and the stunning Martha Higareda among them) are a garish and aggressive lot.

All in all, Smokin' Aces 2 is better than you'd logically expect from your average direct-to-video mostly-in-name-only kind of sequel, and it's clear that Carnahan (presently at work on the big-screen version of The A-Team) kept himself involved in the $7 million follow-up. If you had a good time with Smokin' Aces (and I'd say it's fairly hard not to), then you'll probably find just enough to enjoy with Part 2. It's broad, it's goofy, it's outrageously violent and entertainingly mindless.

Plus Berenger and Crawford deliver some unexpectedly fine work. That's like the icing on a surprisingly fun cake.

DVD note(s): The disc is well-packed with extras, including a gag reel, several deleted scenes, a fistful of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an audio commentary between Pesce and Carnahan.