Smokin' Aces

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/07/07 16:04:48

"Not quite a royal flush, more like a two-pair winning hand."
3 stars (Just Average)

“Smokin’ Aces” is a cluttered mess, wildly inconsistent in tone and all too desperate to duplicate the hipper-than-thou attitudes of post-Tarantino crime capers. But hey, what a ride.

The film, writer/director Joe Carnahan’s long-awaited follow-up to his gritty thriller “Narc,” is a manic blend of hyperkinetic action, exaggerated violence, and winking, self-aware comedy, the sort of thing that would fit right in with “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and its imitators. It wants to be so many things at once that it never truly finds its focus, and yet it manages to be quite a blast anyway, thanks to the gung-ho spirit of cast and crew.

Jeremy Piven stars as Buddy “Aces” Israel, a highly popular Las Vegas magician/card sharp/showman who’s spent the past few years working his way up the Vegas mafia. It seems he’s worked his way too far up, as he’s been nabbed by the feds, who want him to turn state’s evidence. Ah, but the mob finds out where he’s hiding (a lush Lake Tahoe resort), word gets out about the million dollar bounty on his head, and every top hit man in town sets out to take him down before the feds can pick him up.

The result is a rambling fit of mass chaos best described as a “Cannonball Run” in which Dean Martin is a chainsaw-weilding redneck neo-Nazi, Bert Convy’s always stoned out of his gourd, and Jamie Farr is a lesbian sniper. Carnahan has assembled a massive cast: Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Peter Berg, Alicia Keys, Common, Nestor Carbonell, Tommy Flanagan, Curtis Armstrong, and Taraji P. Henson, plus beefy bit parts featuring Jason Bateman, Alex Rocco, and Matthew Fox - and that’s not mentioning the handful of newcomers thrown in as well.

It’s a weighty cast, and Carnahan has them zigging and zagging, criss-crossing each other throughout as they (and their bullets) constantly cross paths en route to Buddy’s penthouse. The whole thing quickly becomes a game of who’s-killing-whom, as characters unexpectedly drop almost at random. It makes sense: if, as Carnhan tells us, these characters truly are as ruthless as they have been introduced as being, then they wouldn’t blink before shooting down anyone around them, never mind the order of star billing. Your initial reaction to the first major shoot-’em-down is to laugh (did that just happen?!), and then it sinks in. Here’s a movie where anything goes. Buckle up, pal.

That’s most of the fun of “Smokin’ Aces,” figuring out who’s who and what’s what and when the next gratuitous murder will occur. Carnahan is relishing the frenzy of it all, as are his performers, who chew the scenery while wearing evil little grins and delight in spitting out such rich dialogue. The screenplay may be one of those ultra-clever numbers where people talk like movie characters and not real people, but the dialogue remains a thrill to hear anyway, especially when pouring from the lips of this cast.

Most curious about the film is its frequent mood swings. While most of the film is set up to be one violent romp, Carnahan strangely, yet effectively, infuses a sorrow into many of the scenes, especially toward the end. For a movie so casual in its bloodletting, it’s surprising to see it take time out to address the dramatic weight of several of these deaths. When one character - a comic relief cameo - gets rubbed out, the killer spends a few minutes comforting his victim, turning the sequence into a quiet, somber moment. The film’s finale, then, steps back to examine the aftermath, with bitter rage fueling the last scenes.

These two styles never fully fit together - if the movie wants to take the killing so seriously, why be so cavalier with it the rest of the time? - but they work well enough on their own to make the film work as a disjointed but consistently entertaining whole. Carnahan makes sure that all these separate moments work out to be such a good time that you don’t mind the problems. “Smokin’ Aces” is big and ballsy and way, way, way over-the-top in a way that shouldn’t work but always does.

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