Smokin' Aces Review
Where Quentin Tarantino moved smoothly from his most subtle work (Jackie Brown) to his most bombastic effort (Kill Bill: Volume 1), Joe Carnahan, who started out as sort-of Tarantino wannabe, but matured nicely with the police thriller Narc, throws a soulless pile of editing clichés into the multiplex arena that is this years Domino. In hindsight, Smokin’ Aces makes Domino warrant a second look for subtlety and subtext. Heck, it makes Revolver look good, or at least a more interesting failure. The opening 20 minutes of the film does the tough-guy story telling of Guy Richie’s first efforts (Lock, Stock…, Snatch) or John Travolta and Samuel Jacksons Marcellus Wallace/Tony "Rocky Horror" anecdote in Pulp Fiction. I happen to like this kind of story telling. This type of myth making can give insight to not only the characters of the story, but also of those who do the telling and they world they inhabit. It is unfortunate that this is just the set-up for what comes next. The second half of the film feels like an overlong strung-out version of the Mexican standoff which caps off Tony Scott’s True Romance. Despite well staged action sequences and a reasonable spatial awareness (something which has been slowly disappearing in modern action movies, case in point - the execrable MI:3 of which, co-coincidently, Carnahan was attached to direct at one point) there is simply nothing on the line and nothing to care about in the film and the whole affair is not as fun or loopy as it clearly wants to be. The over-reliance on post-processing is undoubtedly 21st century; everything else feels very much 1994.
The plot (despite some exposition heavy and needless twistiness in the closing chapters of the film) is worthy of scribbling on a cocktail napkin in a sports-bar. Buddy “Aces” Israel is a Vegas showman who got in with the mob a bit too deep and now is forced to go states evidence. Buddy is a callow and pathetic fellow (although not to the glorious height of Bronson Pinchot’s sublime yuppie in TR), played by Jemery Piven, who struggles through bouts of shouting and sweating, but is never very convincing as either a top-tier magician or a hunted man. The mob has put out a million dollar contract out on his head to prevent him from getting to trial. Instead of attracting slick professionals, the contract seems to attract the needlessly showy eccentrics of the profession. Three of the hitmen look like they stepped out of Jackass by way of American History X or Taxi Driver. How’s that for subtle? Yet curiously, this trio has the lion’s share of what passes for comedy here. Joining the hunt is Ben Affleck and his less than enthusiastic bail-bondsmen buddies, a couple of black lesbian assassins, two different disguise artists, a Swedish doctor who looks like a cross between Stellan Skarsgård and Peter Fonda, and of course the FBI (Fronted by Andy Garcia who, one can only assume was pining for the days of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead).
Central to the films attempted mix of violence and comedy is Buddy Israel himself. Piven’s performance is done entirely through 5 O’clock shadow and stage-sweat. There is a sight gag that Buddy has gone through half a dozen prostitutes and needs to order up a new batch. The idea is funny, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired, with gorgeous women draped around the room as if on a fashion-mag glossy shoot rather than a night of debauchery. A small detail maybe, but it is offputting. Perhaps more amusing would have been Buddy faced with a bevy of gorgeous women only to not be able to get it up due to the stress of his situation and has to send out for the proper medication. Well, maybe not.
The rest of the large cast is an admittedly interesting hodgepodge: Alicia Keys, Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck, Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds and the requisite rapper, Common. It is curious that Reynolds gives the strongest performance of the bunch. One of the few ‘slow moments’ in the film, which is to say, things are not being cut into sped up bursts, involves Reynolds negotiating through a standoff with Alicia Keys and Common while all hell is breaking loose elsewhere. If the rest of Smokin’ Aces had the intensity of this scene I wouldn’t be pecking out several hundred words on why not to bother with the film. Reynolds scenes feel like he is in another, better (more Narc-like) film for most of the proceedings. I wouldn’t have minded seeing that film.
Smokin’ Aces is a huge step down for director Joe Carnahan, not just from his sophomore effort, the underseen and underrated Narc, but even from his BMW short film Ticker. I would suggest you find either of those at your favorite retailer or rental house.