A film review by Craig J. Koban



2007, R, 108 mins.

Buddy Israel: Jeremy Piven / Jack Dupree: Ben Affleck / Richard Messner: Ryan Reynolds / Stanley Locke: Andy Garcia / Georgia Sykes: Alicia Keys / Sir Ivy: Common / Sharice Watters: Taraji Henson / Donald Carruthers: Ray Liotta / Victor Padiche: David Proval / Rupert Reed: Jason Bateman

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan

Joe Carnahan’s SMOKIN’ ACES wants to be in the vein of a hip, irreverent, high-octane, trash talking, blood and guts fuelled exploitation film about contract hitmen.  As a somewhat obvious Tarantinoian-inspired piece of lurid action set pieces and morose individuals, SMOKIN’ ACES could have been  derivative, but lively and spirited, fun.  On the positive, there is no denying the film’s enthusiasm and energy.

Unfortunately, Carnahan overstuffs his film with too many characters and a plot twist that will have many heads shaking with incredulity.  In fact, the third act reveal is so inane and ludicrous that having all of the characters wake up suddenly and shrug off the line “It was only a dream” would have been more satisfying.  Exploitation films never need to be laced with needless and silly governmental, conspiratorial cover-ups.  Why compound all the wicked fun and vivaciousness of the material with a long-winded plot?

SMOKIN’ ACES seems to have been carved out of the good pieces of films like SCARFACE, TRUE ROMANCE, LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and – yes – PULP FICTION.  On a level of pure, unadulterated testosterone, vicious mayhem, and wiseass dialogue, the film does maintain a sort of seamy appeal and charm.  Carnahan is not a talentless director without a vision.  He made one of the better police procedurals with his gritty and well acted NARC.  In SMOKIN’ ACES his passion for the underlining material beckons through its running time and his skill and precision with the camera is also apparent (the film has a snazzy, hyper-stylized, almost expressionistic feel that works in small dosages). 

Yet, SMOKIN’ ACES reminds me of why NARC was such a good film.  That film was pitch perfect in terms of tone and was lean and focused with its story of police corruption.  SMOKIN' ACES could have benefited from Carnahan’s discipline that he exuded with his first film.  It certainly suffers from excess.  There is just too much thrown at the screen for good measure here.

Perhaps my biggest misgiving with the film is its laborious pacing at times.  The film has a kinetic flare during its moments of gory mayhem (which are frequent), but the story takes so bloody long to get going and to establish particulars.  There are scenes upon scenes of characters talking endlessly about other characters and how all relate to one another that I quickly began to lose count and interest.  Even worse, the long-winded premise of the film is void of a satisfying payoff, which inevitably begs me to ask: why focus so much of my time and attention on so many characters and sub plots when you simply don't care after awhile?  SMOKIN' ACES may have been a passably entertaining exercise in pure style, but it also manages to overwhelm the narrative as much as the visuals.  The film is overkill…on too many levels.

Perhaps the film could have worked better overall as a simple film about a mob hit without all of the needlessly complicated subplots.  The basic premise of SMOKIN’ ACES is simple enough.  We meet Buddy “Aces” Israel (the always frantic and spirited Jeremy Piven), who is the five-time winner of Las Vegas’ “most popular showman” honors.  He is a magician that works mostly with sleight of hand tricks with cards, and he is truly gifted at what he does.  He spins and twirls card decks with miraculous dexterity.  He lets his talent get to his head, especially when it comes to picking the right business partners.  He allows himself to become aligned as a favourite amongst the gangsters that rule Vegas’ underworld.  As he gets a taste of the mob mentality he slowing grows an appetite for his own illegal activities himself.  Soon, Israel gets a bit too big for his own shoes and begins to upset his relationship with the Mafioso that gave him his start in the first place.

His mentor, mob boss Primo Sparaza (Joseph Ruskin) now wants Israel dead and puts a $1 million bounty on him for turning state’s evidence against him in a federal case that has been brewing for years, not to mention that it could bring the Mafia down in most of the Western US.  Obviously, once the bounty leaks out there will be every form of degenerate lunatic that will want to cash in on one handsome payday.  The film has a lot of fun serving up a smorgasbord of lowlifes that are colorful and vile.

First, we get a couple of sexy – but deadly – lesbian lovers in the form of the alluring Alicia Keyes and the tomboyish Taraji Henson.  Then, we have what just may be the most ruthless and reprehensible neo-Nazi hitmen ever (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling) who casually butcher their victims without any hesitation.  With their wild Mohawks, tattoo-laced bodies, and weapons that seem to extend beyond their limbs, they look like rejected extras from the MAD MAX films.  We also get an international hitman that specializes in torture named Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) and a hitman that could work for and impossible missions force with his disguise capabilities, Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan).  Finally, we also get Ben Affleck as bail bondsman Jack Dupree who is paid a $50,000 retainer by a desperate lawyer (played in a hilarious, scene stealing performance by Jason Bateman). 

The FBI also catches wind of this bounty and deputy director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia, always brimming with cool bravado) sends a duo of his best agents to ensure that nothing happens to Israel.  They come in the form of the veteran Carruthers (NARC-alumni Ray Liotta) and his younger partner Messner (Ryan Reynolds, playing things straight for a change) and they head to Lake Tahoe to the ritzy resort where Aces and his posse have locked themselves into.  Aces, like any other rich and connected man, has enough drugs and whores to last him weeks.  Unfortunately, time is not on his side and it soon becomes a race to see whether or not the goons or the heroes will reach him in time.  Soon, it becomes apparent that there is more to Israel’s story than anyone anticipated.

There are elements of SMOKIN’ ACES that I enjoyed.  Oddly, I appreciated the film’s wanton disregard to civility and morality.  This is a bloody, violent, and grungy auctioneer that is at its most comfortable when it parades around its remarkably amoral rouge gallery of scum.  Nihilistic hoodlums, some of whom are memorable in their grizzly actions, populate the film.  The film never apologizes for its over-the-top exuberance with its carnage and – during many scenes – Carnahan manages to create some shock and awe (some characters that you think will be major players get picked off early, and when you don’t expect them to).  There are also some moments of macabre comedy thrown into the mix, as with one wickedly droll moment where one of the neo-Nazi hitmen uses one of their dead victims as a puppet for their own twisted fantasy dialogue.  As an orgy of hard-core violence and repugnant and oppressive rejects, SMOKIN' ACES is never a truly dull experience.

The performances are decent, but a bit inconsistent overall.  Ben Affleck has a nice turn in his supporting role as the bail bondsman, but his character is delegated to giving out more expositional dialogue than anything else.  Alicia Keys has a sensual and dark, twisted edge to her contract killer, and the three Nazi-thugs are all played with chilling and unnerving hyperactivity by Pine, Durand and Sterling.  Jason Batmen’s very brief turn as the alcoholic lawyer is inspiring, and Jeremy Piven is more-than-believable as a coked-out-of-his-mind target of everyone's obsession.  Piven is always a lightning rod of funny zingers and one-liners and his vitality shines through in his portrayal of Aces, even if his character is kind of underwritten.  Perhaps the largest surprise is the grounded and suitably focused performance by Ryan Reynolds, who plays against his usual broad, comedic characters and instead inhabits his role as the tough and determined FBI agent.

Yet, despite my fondness for some of its parts, too much of SMOKIN' ACES seems regurgitated from the pieces of far greater films.  Moments of Mexican standoffs with homicidal hitmen and criminals seems ripped off of the screen from any number of Tarantino films, not to mention the film’s yearning to be trendy and punchy with the dialogue.  Carnahan is not a negligible filmmaker, but at times he seems to forget to infuse some soul into his characters, which is something that most directors that are hacking off of Tarantino often forget to do.  Sometimes the action and tension is palpable and thrilling, whereas other times it becomes almost cartoonish and video game inspired.  And the film’s overall narrative is filled to the brim with so many unnecessary elements and has a payoff that is – let’s face it – too silly to be taken literally.  By the time the credits roll by you kind of are left with the impression that an impressive filmmaking talent could have lent his skills to a much better and leaner film.

Some of SMOKIN' ACES is fun and lively, but too much of Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to NARC seems like the stunted half brother of the collective works of Quentin Tarantino to be seen as anything but derivative.  The film blends ultra-violence and dark humor effectively at times and, during some moments, it works as a somewhat enjoyable romp into B-grade, exploitation film waters.  The film’s cheerful enthusiasm for sadism, anarchy, and gratuitous spectacle is oddly involving.  However, the film simply does not sustain enough vicarious interest in its characters and – most crucially – it’s over written and overwrought storyline, which clues people out far too quickly.  SMOKIN' ACES is a mess, but a mess made with considerable skill and professional polish.  Unfortunately, Carnahan trumps what could have been an enjoyably trashy and simpleminded action film with too much plot and – ultimately – a howler of a final plot twist.  The film has too much wrong-minded fiction and not enough quirky pulp. 


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