I knew “Smokin’ Aces”, the new film from director Joe Carnahan (“Narc”), would be a violent film; the trailers seem to celebrate this aspect. But this film is just over the top violent. I don’t usually mind this either; I enjoy going to cartoon-like action films with one action sequence more outrageous than the next. A few months ago, “Crank” was a welcome addition to this subgenre. But “Smokin’ Aces” is no “Crank”. Believe me, I would never have dreamed I would hold up “Crank” as a benchmark for any film, but “Smokin’ Aces” lacks a critical element to make all of the excessive violence acceptable - a single character you care for. Without it, the film is just a far-fetched violent excessive mess starring some well-known established actors and a group of up and comers. All of whom will likely regard this film as the low point of their career.
In short, “Smokin’ Aces” sucks.
Carnahan goes to great pains to help us keep track of the plethora of characters; as each character is introduced, a large title card appears over them giving their name and title. As we meet each, someone else is also giving a little back history about them, using a previous hit or other incident to prove how dangerous they are. We first meet two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) who are living in a van, staking out a mob boss’ home outside of Las Vegas. The FBI has recently begun negotiations with a seedy Las Vegas performer named Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) to rat out his former mob connections. Israel is so entrenched in the mob, he can do real damage. As the FBI listens, one of the mob bosses henchmen (Alex Rocco) calls an associate and informs him there is a hit out on Israel. $1 million for Buddy “Aces” Israel and Rocco wants to get the money and glory, so he arranges for his own people. Soon, word spreads and a motley selection of hit man (including Alicia Keys as a female assassin) are headed to Lake Tahoe where Israel is holed up in the Penthouse suite of the Nomad hotel. Israel’s lawyers (represented by a funny Jason Bateman) have also hired a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) to bring him back and he assembles a crew of guys to help (Peter Berg and Martin Henderson). The head of the FBI (Andy Garcia) sends the two agents to Tahoe to bring Israel in. All of these people converge on the Nomad at the same time. Israel is unaware of all of this and has to deal with his own staff (including musician Common) after they learn the lounge lizard is going to rat on them as well.
Ray Liotta appeared in Carnahan’s last film “Narc” and turned in an intense memorable performance. So I can see why he might be attached to this film, the personal history he shares with the director may have jaded him a bit to the actual quality of this film. But he should’ve read the screenplay before attaching himself. Liotta has never achieved the superstar status he should’ve had after “Goodfellas” and has made both good and bad films, but he is above appearing in a film this poorly conceived. The same could be said of Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck, Matthew Fox (who appears in a brief cameo) and the many other talented people who are involved with this dreck. Each of these people has had a ‘varied’ film career. In the last few years, they have appeared in a number of flops and occasionally a well-respected film, or even a hit. Affleck just earned great praise for his portrayal of George Reeves in “Hollywoodland” and follows with a glorified cameo in this film, which he plays such a small part in the overall story we have to wonder what he was thinking. Andy Garcia has had hits and misses but he always seems to add such a high level of quality, but this film just makes him seem dirty. Jeremy Piven has been receiving enormous critical praise for his role on HBO’s “Entourage” and has received many awards as well.
What exactly did these people think was so attractive about this story? Did they think the excessive violence would be cool? It might have been but the film lacks a few key elements. There is virtually no humor. You know you are in trouble early on; as the two FBI agents are camped out in the van, they start discussing underarm deodorant and its connection to Alzheimer’s. Late in the film, one of the characters encounters a grandmother and her autistic strange grandson living in a trailer park. Every where he turns, something else pops out and the twosome are all the more strange. The grandmother hides a dildo; the grandson is excessively karate kicking the air and has a large patch over one eye. At one point, while the young boy is practicing his kicks, the other character spots an erection in his karate outfit. Har har har. There is exactly one funny moment in the entire film; Jason Bateman has a funny monologue when Affleck and the rest of his crew appear. There are just so many missed opportunities as well. When one of the assassins is trying to get information out of the Nomad’s head of security (Matthew Fox, TV’s “Lost”), there is no humor involved despite the character’s terrible toupee and his single minded attitude towards his job.
For this type of film to work, everything has to be tongue and cheek. In “Smokin’ Aces”, nothing is.
The other missing key element? A single likable character, someone to care for and empathize with. That character should be Buddy Israel, but he is such an unlikable person, we don’t care if he is killed. In fact, there are more arguments in the film for killing him off. He is so annoying we almost want him to be tortured. Not especially likable. The FBI agents are probably the closest thing we come to, but they are either lying, wounded or yelling through most of the film.
Perhaps we should care for one of the assassins? Alicia Keys plays a female contract killer who works with her female partner. Their claim to fame? They took out a Triad gang leader. There is also a group of red-neck neo-Nazi half brothers who go to great lengths to show how dumb, reprehensible and incoherent they are. A Latin American mercenary is also on the hunt for Israel, but he introduced showing how he tortured some of his victims. The last hit man is a master of disguise who “can kill the mark without them ever seeing him”. No. No. No. No.
Early in the film, Carnahan sets up what he hopes will be a real shocker of an ending. Unfortunately, only the most mentally stunted people in the audience would be unavailable to figure this ‘secret’ out. Andy Garcia’s character learns about it very late in the film, only adding to the dullness of his character. Worse, Carnahan seems to realize he has given away the big surprise and tacks on another completely ludicrous ‘revelation’ designed to give us a shock. It doesn’t work and only provides further evidence of the filmmaker’s lack of skill.
In short, “Smokin’ Aces” is just a mess of a film.