2007Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Alicia Keys, Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds
n a movie as aggressively frivolous as Smokin’ Aces, it’s the little things that keep the show going. What would the film have been like without Jeremy Piven as a coke-addled cross between Ari Gold and Tony Montana? Or Alicia Keys’s screen debut as a lesbian hit woman decked out in form-fitting fetish leather? Or Ben Affleck’s mustache? These incidental riches are plentiful, with the considerable catch that you have to sit through the movie to get to them.
The film, director Joe Carnahan’s second after Narc, is otherwise a black hole of high-glam violence and self-mythologizing. There are noir-outfitted back stories around every corner, numerous violent asides and a cast so expansive that you can only remember the celebrity, never the character. It’s so tiring that by the time the movie gets to its punch line, you’re likely to have forgotten the plot altogether.
That’s assuming the events in Smokin’ Aces can even be classified as plot. The film is a frantic, casually incoherent hodgepodge, following at least four different plots on the life of the title character, Buddy “Aces” Israel. Some baddies form elaborate preparations involving Mission: Impossible-style disguises and pyrotechnics; others simply plan to storm his hotel suite with really, really big guns. As it turns out, they are all fated for the same end, because each proceeds toward Israel at the same time—a fantastic convenience that leads to a climax of blood (and characters) splattering every which way.
It isn’t pretty, and I’m not talking about the severed limbs. Carnahan’s first feature, Narc, a taut exploration of how a culture of drug violence affects two Detroit cops, earned him a blank check for this movie, and he’s squandered it extravagantly. Abandoning the hard-won realism of that film, Smokin’ Aces treats the world of the mob with a cheerful pulp sensibility that befits neither its extreme violence nor its final tug toward conventional drama. The freeing amorality of Pulp Fiction is the apparent aim, but this movie wants it both ways: It celebrates the barely-conscious, prostitute-lined world Buddy Israel inhabits just as much as it laments its consequences, and we’re left to pick up the pieces.
This identity crisis is obvious and grating, leading to moments of jarring narrative disorder. In one particularly bizarre sequence, the film alternates between views of an FBI agent who has just lost his partner and a warped, annoying scene involving a wounded assassin, a foul-mouthed little boy and his grandmother. The partner’s death is played up as real drama and carries over into the film’s final act, and the crazy kid is a clear caricature of the MTV generation’s inattention, but both are meaningless paired together so crudely. Carnahan goes for everything and achieves nothing.
Yet no scene in Smokin’ Aces mystifies quite like the final twist. That’s not because it doesn’t make sense—I have no doubt the long-winded speech in the last ten minutes explains it nicely—but because the movie all but assures no one will still be paying attention. By then, connecting the dots is beside the point. You have white-trash assassins and a mysterious Swede and Andy Garcia to distract you. And maybe that’s the real problem: Smokin’ Aces is all distractions.
Smokin’ Aces is currently playing in wide release.