When he was writing “Smokin’ Aces”, writer/director Joe Carnahan must have thought he was still living in the ’90s, back in the glory days of Tarantino cool dialogue (the kind sprinkled with an f-bomb every other word), wacky characters (the kind that can’t possibly exist in the real world), and even wackier situations (the kind only a writer who has been influenced by Tarantino could possibly come up with). Mind you, not that Joe Carnahan’s idea of a ’90s movie ala “Smokin’ Aces” is all bad, as “Aces”, while never as clever or hip as its writer/director desperately wants it to be, is nevertheless never boring. Unfortunately that’s not enough to make this a worthwhile film; it’s got its moments, but on the whole, “Smokin’ Aces” misses its target.
Burdened by a needlessly overly complicated A-plot that spins into various uninteresting minor B-plots, “Smokin’ Aces” involves a successful Vegas lounge act named Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven, “Entourage”), who has left behind a life of Vegas glitz to try his hand at the world of Mafiosos and crime. It does not go well, and Buddy, prone to shoving cocaine up his nose and running through a half dozen hookers a night, is in it deep. The mob, led by the ailing Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) doesn’t just want Israel dead, but wants his heart delivered on a silver platter, and he’s willing to pay a cool $1 million to the person who brings it. The Feds, led by the stout Locke (Andy Garcia, the “Ocean’s 11” films), also wants Buddy as a star witness.
One of Buddy’s criminal ties is Sir Ivy (Common), who is quickly growing wise to his partner’s impending turncoat status. (Even as Buddy parties it up at the luxury suite of the Nomad, a Lake Tahoe hotel, Buddy’s lawyer is in Locke’s office negotiating, for all intents and purposes, the terms of Buddy’s complete surrender.) With a $1 million dollar price tag on his head, Buddy’s got every slick hitmen in the world coming after him. Counting among the horde of killers is an attractive black woman (Alicia Keys) and her lesbian partner, three suicidal skinhead brothers, a chameleon killer, and a Spanish assassin who once chewed off his fingerprints while in prison so he couldn’t be identified.
The place to be is the Nomad, where the killers converge one by one, each with their own plans on how to reach Buddy. Also on their way to Buddy are FBI agents Carruthers (Ray Liotta, who starred in the director’s 2002 film “Narc”) and Messner (Ryan Reynolds, “Blade: Trinity”), who have been sent over by Locke to take Buddy into custody as soon as the deal is reached. The stage is set for a wild free-for all of blood, gore, bullets, and everything else Joe Carnahan can think of to throw at the screen. Basically everything including the kitchen sink — and then the bathroom tub for good measure. Meanwhile, something about Sparazza’s past, and his addiction to plastic surgery, starts to take shape…
The most curious thing about Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces” is that, had it come out a few years ago, it could have been conveniently lumped into the same category as post-Tarantino clones and appreciated on that minimal level. As it stands, the film’s 2007 release date makes the film feel and look outdated, as if we are watching a movie made for an audience that has come and gone. The film is certainly slick enough, and it’s easy to see how Carnahan’s script could have landed actors like Peter Berg, Ben Affleck, and Matthew Fox to do 5-minute cameos. Every character, regardless of how little they fit into the actual scheme of things, are given their “special moments” where they recite Carnahan’s “too cool” dialogue. So why wouldn’t Jason Bateman sign on to play a cross-dressing bail bondsman who hangs out in a hotel all day?
Unfortunately all the named cameos can’t salvage what is, ultimately, an empty suit. “Smokin’ Aces” looks good, sounds good, and for a moment or two around the hour mark, you might have even expected something really good to take shape. Carnahan certainly tries hard to win you over, but he can’t quite get the hang of writing flesh and blood characters that audiences will care about. After seeing the lesbian assassin brutally slay a floor full of FBI agents with a high-powered rifle, why are we supposed to feel sorry for her when her secret crush runs off with the first man she runs across? Carnahan believes we’re supposed to care that this murdering little killer gets shot by the FBI agents who finally track her down. My response? Shoot the bitch again just to be sure, guys.
That’s another aspect of “Smokin’ Aces” that will turn off many viewers. The killers are not just inherently unsympathetic (they do, after all, murder people for a living), but they are easily the scum of the Earth. There are no traces of goodness in any of them, with Keys and her partner being the least despicable of the bunch, and the fact that Carnahan seems to slovenly adore them makes “Smokin’ Aces” somewhat disgusting. It’s really not too hard to figure out what Carnahan expects from his audience — he wants us to side with the killers because he’s dressed them in quirky underwear, and believes that to be enough. Gee, they’re so colorful — let’s root for them! This twisted notion of rooting for the bad guys has Carnahan pulling some ridiculous moments out of his ass, such as when an FBI agent has Keys and Common cornered in a stairwell, and decides to just, well, let them go.
There are no real main characters in “Smokin’ Aces”, but Ryan Reynolds’ G-Man and Jeremy Piven’s coked out magician comes close. They both do wonderful jobs, if only because their characters have the most screentime and are played by good actors. In particular Reynolds’ character, who really doesn’t belong in something this loud and obnoxiously bloody. Piven gives his best performance to date, and although his character is often too one-note and unforgivably unlikable to elicit too much sympathy, we nevertheless can respect him as the cornered animal he is. Ray Liotta barely gets a chance to do anything before his character is killed off in the service of “cool”.
After his well received and critically acclaimed “Narc” in 2002, it took Carnahan 5 years to finally get “Smokin’ Aces” to the big screen. One has to wonder why it took so long. Surely, it couldn’t have taken Carnahan that long to write the script. “Smokin’ Aces” has the fingerprints of a late night bender on speed. There’s nothing complicated about it despite the script’s attempts to inject twists, turns, and last-second plot twists. If you can’t already guess what happened to FBI agent Heller as soon as he was introduced, then you are probably the audience Carnahan was aiming at. Unfortunately, that doesn’t say very much about you.
Joe Carnahan (director) / Joe Carnahan (screenplay)
CAST: Ben Affleck … Jack Dupree
Common … Sir Ivy
Joseph Ruskin … Primo Sparazza
Andy Garcia … Stanley Locke
Alicia Keys … Georgia Sykes
Ray Liotta … Donald Carruthers
Jeremy Piven … Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel
Ryan Reynolds … Richard Messner