Smokin' Aces Review
Director Joe Carnahan didn't have a lot of luck after he came to Hollywood's attention in 2002 with the taut crime thriller Narc. Instantly the hottest director in town, he became attached to a number of major films including Mission: Impossible III, a Harrison Ford detective thriller called A Walk Among The Tombstones and an adaptation of Mark Bowden's non-fiction book about the assassination of druglord Pablo Escobar, Killing Pablo. These projects either fell apart, went to other directors or are still in development.
Now Carnahan's back with his first film in four years, Smokin' Aces and it's another crime movie, albeit of a very different kind. While Narc was a serious-minded cop thriller, this is the latest entry in what might be called the Tarantino genre, in other words a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the crime flick with oversized characters, quotably profane dialogue, pop culture references, extreme violence and a tendency to show off to the audience.
You might remember there was a flurry of movies like this in the mid-nineties, following the success of Pulp Fiction. Two Days In The Valley and Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead come to mind and of course there were our own Guy Ritchie's efforts a couple of years later. This genre's been revived recently, with Domino, Running Scared, Lucky Number Slevin and Crank all owing a big debt to QT.
Smokin' Aces is about a mob contract that's been put out on Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Las Vegas magician who became tight with a local ganglord, got involved with things he shouldn't have and is now being blackmailed by the FBI to testify against his former friend. His former friend of course has put a bounty on his head - one million dollars. The frightened Buddy's gone on the run and he's holed up in a Lake Tahoe hotel penthouse. He's surrounded by heavy security, but it's not nearly heavy enough to protect him from the veritable army of cops, bounty hunters and hitmen headed his way.
That's about all there is to Smokin' Aces, save for a final twist that's even more guessable than Lucky Number Slevin's. The whole film is just a big build-up to a shoot-out in a hotel. Numerous colourful characters learn of Buddy's location, travel there and try to kill him and one another
The first of the movie's many problems is it's not that great a shoot-out. When Kevin Costner spent two hours building up to a gunfight in Open Range, he made sure to deliver the mother of all gunfights. Carnahan's hotel shoot-out is okay, nothing special. It's certainly not the bullet-riddled armageddon the movie seemed to be promising.
If there isn't much plot, don't get the idea that the hour and fifty minute running time isn't well filled because Smokin' Aces is absolutely stuffed with characters and backstory. The first thirty minutes is solid exposition, with various characters talking non-stop to explain who everyone is, what their involvement in the plot is and what they're planning to do. Mostly what they're planning to do is kill Buddy.
Besides the snitch, his bodyguards, the mob, the Feds and the neo-Nazis, there's also a pair of lesbian hitwomen, a mysterious assassin called Mr Soot (remember Mr Shhh in Things To Do In Denver?), a foreign killer called the Swede, yet another hitman posing as an FBI agent and a trio of bounty hunters led by Ben Affleck. Those are the major characters. Problem number two is that there's just too many people. The interesting ones don't get enough space.
Problem number three is that all these characters don't belong in the same movie. The straight-up FBI agents simply don't inhabit the same universe as the cartoonish neo-Nazi assassins. The movie's tone is all over the place and the key to the Tarantino genre is controlling the tone. QT himself is a master of it. He can go from verbal comedy to touching sincerity to horrific violence and back to comedy again in the same scene and make it work. Carnahan, working from his own screenplay, can't.
Too much of the time, he's all too obviously showing off. There are scenes which have no purpose but to be scenes in a Tarantino-style movie, to make the audience snigger to each other afterwards, "Dude, that bit where the killer moved the corpse's lips like a puppet, that was messed up!" Some of these scenes are funny in a twisted way, like the puppet bit; others fall flat, like the subplot with the hyperactive child; still others are just pointlessly disturbing, like the murder of the hotel security manager. All of them contribute to the feeling that Carnahan is trying too hard to be Tarantino, to prove he can do his own "Royale with cheese" scene, his own ear-slicing, his own Sicilians speech.
Joe Carnahan is obviously a very talented writer and director but he's spinning his wheels with Smokin' Aces, imitating another director who himself left that particular kind of movie behind him over ten years ago, and not achieving anything like the same results. Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction are great films as well as great entertainment. Smokin' Aces is fluff - it's a bedroom farce about violent killers.
At least it's very well acted. Jeremy Piven makes a supremely sleazy Buddy. Jason Bateman has a great scene that adds nothing (like most scenes in this movie) but is great fun on its own. The film's undisputed star however is Ryan Reynolds, who is quite excellent in a tough-guy FBI agent role, especially in his final scenes. Along with Blade: Trinity, this demonstrates that Reynolds has what it takes to be a major Hollywood star.