by Mel Valentin
Written and directed by Joe "Carnage" Carnahan ("Narc," "Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane"), "Smokin' Aces" is a stylish, homage-laden, blackly comic crime drama. Think of "Smokin’ Aces" as a Tarantino-meets-Altman-influenced riff on crime, criminals, mixed, as expected, with absurd levels of violent mayhem and credibility-stretching switchbacks. With its testosterone levels dialed up to a fever pitch, "Smokin' Aces" is no way, no how meant for easily offended moviegoers. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s output ("Kill Bill," "Pulp Fiction," "Reservoir Dogs") only have to wait a few more months for his next film, "Grindhouse," but until then "Smokin’ Aces" is as good as you’re going to get from a filmmaker not named Tarantino working in the crime genre.On a stakeout of mobster Primo Sparazza’s (Joseph Ruskin) home, FBI agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) overhear a plot to take out Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Las Vegas magician/performer-turned-mobster. Alerted to the one million dollar bounty on his head, Buddy flees to Lake Tahoe with two of his henchmen, Sir Ivy (Common), his loyal-to-a-fault second-in-command, and Hugo Croop (Joel Edgerton), his short-on-smarts bodyguard. FBI deputy director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) sends Messner and Carruthers to Lake Tahoe to grab Buddy and place him in protective custody while Buddy’s attorney works out a deal with the Feds (good for Buddy, bad for Primo and his business associates).
"Tarantino-meets-Altman and it's all right."
As word of the contract on Israel’s head spreads, contract killers head to Lake Tahoe. Among there are Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) and Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys), African-American partners in contract killing, Darwin (Chris Pine), Jeeves (Kevin Durand), and Lestor (Maury Serling), violent, amoral skinheads and brothers, Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan), a master of disguise, and Pasqual Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), a sadistic international assassin. To complicate matters, Rupert “Rip” Reed (Jason Bateman), a seedy show business/mob attorney who fronted Buddy’s bail money, hires three bail bondsmen Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), Pete Deeks (Peter Berg), an ex-vice cop and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson), Deeks’ former partner, to bring Buddy back to Vegas.
Figuring out where Smokin’ Aces ends up isn’t particularly hard. Characters, good, bad, and otherwise motivated, converge on the Lake Tahoe hotel, shootouts erupt everywhere, and blood flows in generous amounts. Some characters live, some (most) don’t, some emerge bloodied, physically and emotionally. A few shocks and surprises come our way, including a “big reveal’ that isn’t big or much of a reveal, but at least it’s not too much of a stretch. Of course, the mix of stylized, tough-guy dialogue, multiple characters and subplots, pop culture references, and ultra-violence, Smokin’ Aces owes a fairly huge debt to Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.
Not surprisingly, Carnahan loves nothing more than to name check pop culture (e.g., films, television, music) wherever possible. Here, he pays homage to Ralph Macchio's character in The Karate Kid (seriously), an oddly sexualized, homoerotic scene between a hitman and his dying victim (Saving Private Ryan for the story elements, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly for the visual style and the score), a hitman with a blade hidden inside his jacket sleeve (Marathon Man), a face-changing hitman (Mission: Impossible, Scooby Doo), an African-American duo straight out of 70s blaxploitation (Foxy Brown, Coffy, Cleopatra Jones), and on and on.
Carnahan isn’t the first (and he probably won’t be the last) to follow where Tarantino has gone before. Some moviegoers will immediately spot similarities between Smokin’ Aces and Lucky Number Slevin, last year’s self-referential, ultra-violent, cynically nihilistic crime drama, but without the convoluted, switchback-heavy storyline that needed half a dozen flashbacks spread out over the last forty minutes to explain everything we thought we knew (but didn’t). Complex flashback structures are often associated with film noir, but Lucky Number Slevin went too far, leaving moviegoers with flashback fatigue. Here, Carnahan is smart enough to keep the flashbacks to a minimum, saving them for the occasional bit of exposition or the “big reveal” in the second-to-last scene.Ultimately, "Smokin’ Aces" proves that Carnahan can handle multiple characters and multiple story threads and creating a cohesive, coherent whole without resorting to gimmicky plot devices. Carnahan knows how to exploit a genre’s strengths while generally avoiding the genre’s potential for excess (well, with the exception of the ultra-violent bit). And any director who can elicit a credible turn from Ryan Reynolds, an actor better known and better suited to lightweight, comedic roles, deserves a shout out. Now that Carnahan’s proven his chops in the crime genre three times over, let’s see him try a different genre next time around.
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originally posted: 01/25/07 17:19:03