Smokin' Aces Review

A rather optimistic preamble tells us that the FBI has destroyed almost all of the crime families in North America. All but one, in fact, which is headed by the reclusive Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). Sparazza is sick, though, and getting worse, taking to his bed in readiness for his last days. Outside his home, FBI agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are listening in to a bugged telephone when they hear a conversation concerning Sparazza and Las Vegas entertainer Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven). A showbiz star who'd done a Sinatra by allying himself to the mob, Aces Israel is playing loose with the Mafia and needs to be taken out. The mob name a price, a place and a killer...a million dollars, Lake Tahoe and the Swede. But more parties than just the Swede wants that million dollars and when Buddy’s whereabouts hits the streets, Lake Tahoe readies itself for the arrival of all the professional hitmen the mob can muster...

No doubt the title came first, much as it did with Lucky Number Slevin, Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. After that, possibly in a close tie, came the poster art and the idea of hitmen, bounty hunters and the feds arriving at a hotel in Lake Tahoe all to take out (or in) a Mafia informer. With three great ideas already in place, the only problem was how the film could possibly live up to them. Unfortunately, the news there is less than stellar.

You can see the problems coming early in the film. There are too many ideas that just don't go anywhere. As the three bounty hunters, Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), ‘Pistol’ Pete Deeks (Peter Berg) and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson) shoot pool, drink beer and, via flashbacks, introduce the character of Buddy ‘Aces’ Berlin and his whereabouts. What they don't have is very much memorable dialogue in spite of the characters, the setting or the restless camerawork. It doesn't require an astonishing leap of imagination to see Affleck, Berg and Henderson standing on the set in their retro-styled wardrobe flicking backwards and forwards through the script in search of the pearls of dialogue that would otherwise have been theirs. Having then set up the film, writer/director Joe Carnahan doesn't look as though he’s entirely sure where he ought to take it. He floods a Lake Tahoe hotel with Feds and hitmen, many of whom turn on each other long before they ever get to empty a clip in to Aces Israel, while, in the penthouse suite, their target has a breakdown. At times gloomy, sometimes violent and not half funny enough, Smokin’ Aces has a hard time delivering what one expects of it.

The problem with the film is how much it lurches between comedy and tragedy, well-suited bedfellows in another film but not so here. The Neo-Nazi Tremor brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling), all leather, platemail armour, automatic weapons and chainsaws, appear to have wandered in from any one of the Mad Max films while the lesbian affair between Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) is an odd thing, directing the audience to cheer while the Tremors suffer some humiliating injuries while the girls, in spite of killing a lot of Federal Agents with a weapon that could down a jumbo jet, would appear to be searching for our sympathies. Add assassin, sadist and torturer Pasqual 'The Plague' Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) - the fantastical story of Smokin' Aces is made clear by The Plague, having been arrested in Belfast by the SAS, chewing off his own fingertips to avoid being printed - and master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan) to all of this and Smokin' Aces is a film that doesn't do very much more than simply ump them all in a hotel and asks them to figure out an ending for themselves. That they don't just fall over one another in the penthouse suite isn't very far away from what actually happens but it shows the general lack of imagination beyond the surface gloss of Smokin' Aces, being that title, poster and sky-high concept of assassins tripping over one another.

The whole thing wraps up with an ending that will have been obvious to anyone who’s watching the flashbacks closely and who isn't thinking about things too literally. Smokin' Aces wants to have as frisky a story as The Usual Suspects but doesn't offer quite enough double-crossing, quite enough comedy and, in spite of the number of bullets spent, enough murder. Indeed, the cast come and go whilst defying the laws of medicine, two of them emptying handguns into one another's chests and surviving while others linger near death after a single shot. The problem with all of this is that everything belongs in an entirely different film. The story of hitwomen Sykes and Watters might have made a decent film on its own but the suggestion of a love affair between the two is quickly passed over as Federal Agents close in on one and the other leaves via the hotel lobby in the arms of one of Aces' bodyguards. Ryan Reynolds, on the other hand, plays his part very straight, which makes it all the more odd that he's in this film at all. As for the hard-on sported by the hyperactive twelve-year-old karate kid, I am genuinely struggling to think what kind of film that belongs in. Whatever it is, I'm not sure that it's the kind of film that I want watch. Like those photofits of the Most Handsome Man In The World from late-seventies editions of Jackie, which took parts from David Cassidy, David Essex and Donny Osmond to make someone who is only notable for being monstrously ugly, Smokin' Aces takes otherwise good characters and tries to play them off one another, finding that it just doesn't work.

And yet for all of that, there are still some great moments. That's not very surprising given how sprawling a film it is but it's a little bit of a treat when they come along. Jeremy Piven does very well with the part of Aces Israel and has the best scene in the film, one in which he has a breakdown to the sound of John Cale's Big White Cloud. That Alicia Keys is as good as she is is something of a surprise while Ray Liotta anchors the film's more fanciful moments with an underplayed performance as a Federal Agent, something that Smokin' Aces desperately needed. As Liotta's partner, Ryan Reynolds has the most time on the screen but, like everyone else, belongs in a very different film, one in which his G-Man brings down several high-ranking figures in the mob without any of the distractions brought by lesbian killers, Neo-Nazis and a stage magician-turned-goodfella. Read like that, Smokin' Aces could have been a starry, clever and very odd cult movie. More's the pity that it isn't.


Smokin' Aces is anamorphically presented in 2.35:1 and generally looks very good. Released into theatres last year, the print used for this DVD is a very good one, being clean, free of print damage and with a very rich set of colours. The actual transfer is good, not losing very much detail in the sharp cutaways between scenes and in the deep focus that has the viewer watching the background as much as the foreground. On the other hand, there are moments that look a little drab. The ending, in particular, doesn't look very much better than an average episode of CSI whilst that so very much of the action takes place in the penthouse that it can feel claustrophobic. Again, Carnahan could have done much better with the actual shooting of the film, being much less flashy than similar films by Guy Ritchie, which doubtless assisted in the mastering of the film for DVD but which doesn't make for so pretty a film.

The DD5.1 is fairly good but doesn't make quite enough use of the rear channels and subwoofer as it ought to do. On the other hand, it is clear and there's very little background noise, letting the dialogue stand out just as much as the sometimes wonderful selection of music on the soundtrack. And no one moment in Smokin' Aces is better than the inclusion of Big White Cloud as Aces Israel stares at his own reflection.


Deleted And Extended Scenes (9m36s): These appear to be mostly the latter, extending what's already in the film with bookending footage. None of this is essential and offers no revelations, suggesting that all of the best material is already in the film. Even the alternate scenes are disappointing given how little they differ from the final cut. Not much better than these scenes are the Outtakes (9m30s), a set of scenes ruined by behind-the-camera laughter, corpsing, fluffed lines and Ben Affleck failing to sink a pool ball. There's not much that's funny in this but, having watched a good many of these over the years, there never is. The best of these alternate/deleted scenes is the Cowboy Ending (1m04s), a short but shocking variation on how Smokin' Aces actually ended.

The Line Up: Let down by a poor script, the cast is still a reasonable lot and this section allows them to introduce themselves and to talk about their characters. Bounty Hunters (2m47s) allows Bateman, Affleck, Berg and Henderson a short time each to describe their counterparts in the film while, in what is the best one here, Sterling, Pine and Durand get the opportunity to have us like the Tremor Brothers (2m48s). Henson and Keys, who has a newfound respect for hookers thanks to her wearing of thigh-length boots, are present for Lethal Ladies (2m35s) while Garcia and Reynolds - no Liotta - talk about The Feds (3m15s). Finally, Jeremy Piven gets a short feature all to himself with Buddy Israel (2m06s).

The Big Gun (11m54s): "Why not?" is how Joe Carnahan describes the making of Smokin' Aces, which, having watched the film, is not, I would suggest, an altogether advisable principle to take with him to his next feature. This behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of Smokin' Aces follows Carnahan as he gets his film made, showing him staring into a monitor for much of the time but, infrequently it would seem, allowing him to be interviewed to give the audience a flavour for the making of Smokin' Aces. Although, in his, "Why not?" spirit of the film, one doesn't actually learn very much about it through these moments.

Shoot 'em Up (4m53s): The various shoot-outs in the film last a good deal longer than this feature, including one that does seem to go on for far too long and which spans several floors in the hotel. This short feature, other than showing the actors holding guns and desperately attempting not to blink, describes the special effects but isn't, for all the hot metal casings that land on the floor, at all interesting.

Commentaries: There are two here, one with writer/director Joe Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen and the other with Carnahan alongside actors Common, Christopher Holley and Zach Cumer. Presumably, all of the better known members of the cast were busy that day. The first of these tracks is the best of the two, allowing Carnahan and Frazen, once they get past the obvious stuff, to relax and talk about the making and editing of the film as well what they might have done differently had they had a second chance. The Carnahan and cast commentary isn't as interesting but has more laughs in it, mostly due to Carnahan, who is good to listen to, get on with his stars and to have them enjoy one another's company.

Finally, all of these special features with the exception of the commentaries, are subtitled in English, French and Spanish.

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