(On DVD, March 2011) Direct-to-video sequels aren’t usually good news, especially when their connection to the original film isn’t much more than a few minor characters and a rehash of the premise. The original becomes the sequel’s worst enemy in becoming the standard against which the latter effort is evaluated. So it is that Joe Carnahan’s original Smokin’ Aces may not have been much more than a cheap and slightly insane action thriller. P.J. Pesce’s sequel doesn’t fly any higher, although it’s a bit better than many other DTV features. It’s easy to see the limits of the film’s budget: the CGI explosions whose destruction isn’t seen in latter scenes, the limited number of locations, the unfamiliar actors, etc. The script is similarly poorer, going straight from explaining the premise to blowing up the sets without much in terms of writing refinements. Plot-wise, nearly every scene feels like a contractual obligation, and few of the characters earn our sympathy along the way. Worse: the excessively gory mean-spirited nature of the film (why simply kill someone when you can send chunks of flesh fly?) makes it feel even cheaper and less enjoyable than the original: there’s an ick-factor to the R-rated gore that doesn’t mesh well with the amiable way such action films best present themselves. Even the various assassins feel more annoying than anything else –especially compared to the original. On technical grounds, the film is sometimes on thin ice with its occasionally-incomprehensible dialogue mixing and an overly stylized visual design that feels incoherent. Still, there’s a lot worse in DTV land, and Smokin’ Aces 2 has a few positives going for it. It’s not very long; it’s got an ambitious visual style that clearly aspire to match Carnahan’s work on the original, and some of the forward rhythm can be interesting. But even singling out a number of interesting elements -the film’s attempt to claim some political relevance, Martha Higareda, the surprising final shot- is really a cue to complain that they weren’t executed as well as they could: The political relevance feels late and pretentious compared to the rest of the film; Higareda’ character is unceremoniously taken out of the film, and the last shot is best appreciated as a nod to other, better movies. But even with occasional moments of energy, this is still a better-than-average direct-to-video sequel. Call it a middle-grade exploitation film: It won’t appeal to many more people than the fans of the original.