Thursday, April 19, 2007

Smokin' Aces

Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Common, Jason Bateman, Peter Berg, Chris Pine, Nestor Carbonell, Tommy Flanagan

Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

If Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino somehow conceived an ugly child, it would be named Smokin' Aces. The film joins a long list of what's become a very popular sub-genre in Hollywood since around 1996: "The Pulp Fiction knock off." Except there's one key difference between Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces and other lesser films that fall into that category. This movie is actually fun. It's a mindless, frenetic, dizzying bloodbath that features fun performances and an intriguing premise.

You may hear people occasionally describe a movie like this as junk food. I couldn't possibly think of a better description. You may forget about days after you've seen it, but there's no denying it delivers an amazing short term adrenaline rush you're not likely to get from most films. It also wins points for having a fully loaded star-studded cast that isn't just there for decoration, but to serve the story's central purpose. That central purpose in question, which fully reveals itself in the film's closing minutes, is also surprisingly clever and hints that this film may have had more on its mind than we originally thought.

Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a sleazy Las Vegas illlusionist and FBI snitch who has a $1 million bounty put on his head by a dying mob boss. He's hauled himself up in a posh penthouse suite in Lake Tahoe, Nevada (which makes for a visually fantastic set piece) with enough hookers and cocaine to last a lifetime. Meanwhile an entertaining assortment of hired assassins and career killers are descending upon the hotel ready to take his life and heart (literally). FBI agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are dispatched by their superior Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) to Nevada in order to thwart the attempts on Irael's life so he can provide the damning testimony, then enter protective custody. At least that's what they're told.

The rogue gallery of thugs sent to take out Israel include three bail bondsmen (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson), a group of neo-Nazi skinheads known as the Tremors (led by Chris Pine), two lesbian hitwomen (Alicia Keys and Davenia McFadden) a Jigsaw-like torturer (Nestor Carbonell) and most interestingly of all, a master of disguise named Lazlo Soot (played creepily by Tommy Flanagan).

Nearly the first 45 minutes to an hour of this film is all plot set-up and introduction but when this wild assortment of characters do eventually descend upon the hotel in Lake Tahoe (and it's worth the wait) fasten your seatbelts. What unfolds is a violent firestorm of bullets an a dizzying sequence of action scenes that are so intense it's almost exhausting to watch. There's one shoot out in an elevator that really needs to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, since this is one of those Tarantino knock-offs there must be some attempt at witty dialogue and black humor. It's in this department that Carnahan (who previously directed the low budget cop thriller, Narc) fails miserably. We have bad sight gags such as ventriloquism with a dead body and a particularly annoying bit with a deranged, Ritalin fueled, hyperactive kid. Now I could understand how on paper it might seem like a funny comedic interlude, but anyone who's ever encountered a kid like this knows there's absolutely nothing funny about it and you feel like strangling him. It's no less irritating here.

Oh, and Carnahan also thought it might be funny if the kid had a boner. Why is this so hilarious? I have no idea, but you might want to ask Carnahan himself, who's laughing about it on the DVD special features like it's the funniest thing he's ever filmed or witnessed in his life. The only joke that really worked in this movie was a hilarious cameo from Jason Bateman as a delusional, cross-dressing attorney, but he's really only in one or two scenes.

These are small complaints though, because much of what this film is trying to do works, and honestly, a lot of that can be attributed to Jeremy Piven's manic, over the top performance as Buddy Israel. This is supposed to be his first big starring role coming off the heels of his Emmy nominated work on HBO's Entourage. I've never seen Entourage but know him from his strong, but largely overlooked supporting film work over the years. People tell me his character here is similar to the one he plays on that show, just with the volume turned way up.

Here he really takes advantage of the opportunity given to him and just chews up the scenery as Israel. There's a scene he has with one of his henchmen (played by rapper Common) that's just amazing. He somehow finds a way to convey deep levels of sadness and despair from beneath the surface of this sleazy, strung out prick. The casting of this role was crucial because nearly everyone in the film exists to murder this character, so it's important that we care about him. Not necessarily like him, but care what happens to him. Piven makes us care. Without that, this whole enterprise would have been doomed from the start.

Ryan Reynolds really surprised me with his work in this, as I didn't think he could be a capable action lead, but he pulls it off well. As hitwoman Georgia Sykes, Alicia Keys (making her film debut) has a much larger role than you might expect and also does a much better job with it than you might expect. It's an impressive debut for her.

There's a twist ending in Smokin' Aces that actually seems like it required some thought because it does make a lot of sense and probably makes the film look better on repeated viewings. The film also closes perfectly and doesn't go on a second longer than it needs to. I can't tell you how many times I've seen action movies like this that seemingly end, then proceed to go on many scenes longer than necessary with a hundred false endings. Carnahan delivers his big twist and then ends the film with a final action that's brief and impactful. That it's so low-key compared to the rest of the film just makes it that much more surprising and effective. That's how you close a movie. Going into Smokin' Aces you can leave your brain at the door, but be prepared, because like its central character, the movie does have a few clever tricks up its sleeve.

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