Colorful or ludicrous?
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jeremy Piven, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta
It's been a good long time since anyone’s had to dust off the adjective “Tarantinoesque” to describe a movie. Back before the turn of 2000, in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the Sundance Film Festival was spewing out hip, ironic, pop-culture-infused crime films faster than the shelves at Blockbuster Video could keep up with. That trend seemed to tire itself out and go to bed after a while—but now comes the hip, ironic, pop-culture-infused crime film Smokin’ Aces.
Filmmaker Joe Carnahan (writer/director of the Tarantinoesque 1998 film Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) writes and directs this pumped-up action thriller about a whole ragtag collection of hyper-colorful hitmen who descend on a Tahoe hotel to bump off one Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a cheesy-magician-turned-Mob-informant. Among the overstuffed, “who’s got a day off for a cameo” cast are Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck, Alicia Keys, Nestor Carbonell, Peter Berg, Andy Garcia, Wayne Newton, Jason Bateman, Curtis Armstrong, Matthew Fox and rap star Common.
The film kicks off with a heeee-uge amount of exposition, attempting to lay out the script’s unnecessarily complicated set-up and the unwieldy number of players involved. The film even resorts to Tarantino’s affectation of printing character names on screen as they are introduced. It doesn’t really help. The film also feels the need to conclude with numerous characters describing in painful detail what the hell just happened. None of it makes any damn sense. The only really salient points are that there’s a million-dollar bounty on Buddy Israel and everybody wants to kill him. Got it? Good. See how easy that was, Joe?
Fortunately, in between all the impenetrable plot descriptions, Carnahan finds time to make lots and lots of bullets fly. The violence is over-the-top and completely gratuitous, but it is kind of satisfying in a mid-’90s “wish I was John Woo” kind of way. Carnahan demonstrates a few measurable skills between start and finish. If nothing else, he’s got the action stuff down. Hotel rooms explode, elevators get ripped apart, chainsaws are swung and bad guys pump entire clips of bullets into one another before dropping (often temporarily) into mutilated heaps. So long as people are either bleeding or pulling triggers, Smokin' Aces is giddy, guilty fun.
Even in the energetic sections, though, there’s no getting over the fact that Aces freely loots the back catalog of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and pretty much every director to riddle a body with bullets and make a snarky joke afterward. Nowadays, that hardly constitutes a misdemeanor. Carnahan’s greatest crime is that he can’t seem to tell the difference between colorful and completely ludicrous. Over the course of the film, we’re introduced to the most outrageous collection of killers ever conceived: There are a couple of sassy lesbian soul sistahs, a sensitive South American torturer, a sinister master of disguises and a trio of skinhead punks straight out of The Road Warrior. ... And that’s before we meet the one-eyed, Ritalin-addicted Karate Kid wannabe.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the chaotic plot and unbelievable characterization, most of the castmembers seem to be having a gas. Ben Affleck turns in a better performance dead (sorry for the spoiler) than most of the films in which he’s obliged to live through the end credits. Jason Bateman plays amusingly against type (way against type). Alicia Keys displays a surprising amount of sexy confidence in her first acting role. And Jeremy Piven certainly gives 110 percent to a sleaze-pig role that requires him to rant, rave, do drugs, curse at hookers and generally freak out big time.
Unfortunately, the more enjoyable aspects of Smokin' Aces (black comedy, bloody mayhem) are continually undone by Carnahan’s outsized aspirations, which keep trying to turn the film into a talky Goodfellas clone. If you ain't Tarantino, Mr. Carnahan, you sure as hell ain’t Martin Scorsese. Next time, pick an identity and stick to it.