Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jeremy Piven, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Martin Henderson, Joseph Ruskin, Common, Jason Bateman, Alex Rocco, Christopher Holley, Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling, Nestor Carbonell
MPAA Rating: (for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 1/26/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
To say that Smokin' Aces is a Pulp Fiction rip-off is paying the movie a compliment it doesn't deserve. This is more a rip-off of the countless rip-offs that proceeded Tarantino's seminal work, but even that's paying the movie too much mind. What seems at first glance a multi-storyline crime thriller is actually a single-storyline exercise in chaos with a multitude of characters. It's not even different perspectives of the story; it's just a boatload of characters telling the same story without any variance over and over again. Then again, these aren't characters but caricatures that are as shallow and disposable as the movie's plot is repetitive. Even the dialogue overlaps and repeats itself, emphasizing that these people have nothing to say except blandly stating the situation at hand. Running throughout this mess of stylistic pomp is a complete disregard for humanity, from the complete lack of character development to the absence of any barely likable character to the dedication to utter carnage over thoughtful storytelling. This is a near-repulsive movie and a depressing one nevertheless. Add to it that it is the result of a filmmaker with a lot of potential, and Smokin' Aces is a downright miserable experience.
Two FBI agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are staking out the palatial estate of the elderly and ill Mafioso boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), one of the few remnants of the Cosa Nostra that remains. When one Sparazza's capos stupidly talks on an open and tapped line about a $1,000,000 hit on an informant that could topple their family, he also mentions that Sparazza wants the man's heart. The informant is Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Vegas showman, and the Feds are holding him in protective custody in a penthouse at a Lake Tahoe resort. Meanwhile, the agents' boss Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) pieces together the connection between Sparazza and Israel to give the men a better idea of why the hit is so big, including information about a split in the family caused by Israel and the first FBI undercover officer to infiltrate the mob. At the same time, a team of competing hitmen is being assembled. Among their ranks are a pair of female assassins (Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson), three bail bondsmen (Ben Affleck, Martin Henderson, and Peter Berg), and the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, and Maury Sterling), a trio of insane neo-Nazis.
Joe Carnahan wrote and directed the movie, clearly with his mind on an extremely stylistic approach from its inception. The script is a slapdash concoction of an excessively convoluted but inherently simple story and balls-to-the-wall violence. The opening act is particularly sloppy and unnecessarily long, cutting between characters telling the history of the Sparazza family and its split at the hands of Israel and flashbacks to show us what's being said. It's the first evidence that Carnahan cares little about his characters. Nothing distinguishes one character's dialogue from the next, and for the rest of the movie, the dialogue consists of either "They really want Israel" or "We've got to get Israel" over and over, ad nauseam. If the repetitive nature of the script weren't enough, Carnahan barely introduces some characters before shipping them off the mortal coil, and by the time the survivors meet their doom, they might as well have just been introduced for the basic characterization afforded them. There's just an inherent lack of humanity here, and by the time a tortured but similarly undeveloped hero emerges, he's only notable for having a shred of nobility.
The hero by default (and natural selection) turns out to be Ryan Reynolds' Messner, and Reynolds is solid in a non-smarmy role. The rest of the cast does its best with slim to nothing, but only Jeremy Piven stands out from the degenerate crowd, giving Israel a sad regret to go along with his coked-out breakdown. It doesn't take much to stand out in the crowd here, though, as these characters are still only moving targets. Carnahan's goal in the action is chaos, and in that respect, it's just as messy as the script. The violence here isn't entertaining in the slightest. The movie's tone is one of mean-spiritedness that prevails throughout everything. A huge sniper rifle sends its victims flying through the air, and when one of the Tremor brothers emerges with a chainsaw, it's only the beginning. A close-range shootout in an elevator eliminates one potentially worthwhile character, and Matthew Fox appears briefly as bait for one hitman and gets to realize he's dying. By the time Messner gets through the ordeal, his outrage at the senseless loss of life rings completely false and hypocritical; it's the only thing the movie has on its plate.
Even though the movie has dug its own grave by the end, it should be noted there's an attempt at a surprise ending that is neither surprising nor even with purpose. Whatever the point of Smokin' Aces is, it doesn't achieve much of anything except a general sense of gloom for mankind. Carnahan is a talented director, so it's best to consider his third feature as a failed stylistic experiment. It's either that or claim incompetence.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.