by JAMES BRIGHAM
Smokin’ Aces is writer/director Joe Carnahan’s latest offering to the god of gunplay and the goddess of cool. After its conclusion, I remarked to my friend while the credits were rolling that I wanted the DVD version to be available right now, so I could purchase the flick and watch it again – on a portable player – while sitting in the theater during a repeat matinee. I could then shift my attention back and forth between the big screen projection and the small LCD screen in front of me, surrounded by a warming aura of filmmaking bravado and sheer fun. Needless to say, I think Carnahan’s latest moviemaking ritual will win him quite a few converts.
Upon exiting the Cineplex, I began to think further on the whole experience and had to deescalate my plans a bit. As I entered the parking lot, my zeal for purchasing a portable movie player had nearly vanished, only to be replaced with a sensation I call “hunger.” I still wanted to see Smokin’ Aces again; I just didn’t want to do it in such a ludicrous way. The movie’s designed to conjure such crazy thoughts, however. Its plot is packed with enough lunacy to send sane minds off to a fantasyland where anything goes and hitmen (and women), cops, and feds are as plentiful and colorful as the flora in the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
As the characters’ stories weave in and out of each other, they compete for your attention in different ways: FBI agent Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds, of all people) draws you in with his focused dedication to law and order; criminal lieutenant Sir Ivy (rapper Common, in his film debut) impresses with a smooth display of rising outrage over betrayal within his brotherhood; the sniper Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) is provocative and witty during a sad subplot of unrequited love. Other characters lack believable depth but are outfitted with enough distracting quirks to make the viewer ignore their inherently fictional makeup. The Tremor brothers are a bunch of nearly one-dimensional neo-Nazi rednecks whose batshit crazy combination of Viking assault tactics and unconventional tools makes their lack of profundity forgivable. The remainder of Smokin’ Aces’ cast are serviceable but pedestrian: Ben Affleck’s a semi-skuzzy bail bondsman, Andy Garcia’s a highfalutin FBI chief with a distracting accent, Alicia Keyes is a pretty but flat toned assassin, etc.
Chief amongst all of these weapon wielders is the pseudo-titular character of Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven). Piven has long been a favorite comedic actor of mine; his playful delivery of rapid-fire witticisms made him a memorable standout in films like PCU and Grosse Pointe Blank. Smokin’ Aces once again demonstrates these humorous skills while also affording him a rare opportunity to engage the audience via dramatic tragedy. His Buddy is an ex-magician crime boss and future FBI informant who’s carrying enough Intel to potentially destroy a major criminal cartel. Hence the reason for hordes of government agents and hired killers to descend upon his penthouse hideout in Lake Tahoe. Piven nicely alternates between epic self-indulgence and emotional, personal torture as Buddy paces like a rat in a gilded cage, awaiting his fate.
While Buddy attempts to maintain an illusion of confidence and camaraderie with his gang, he’s also communicating with his lawyer to determine how many members of his coterie have to be given up for arrest to the feds. As his world of fame and fortune begins to crumble, Buddy relies more and more on drugs to get through the turmoil. All of this character’s drama comes boiling to a head during what should be a simple moment of contact lens changing. Instead, Smokin’ Aces unexpectedly delivers its best and most memorable scene in which Buddy’s deceit is exposed in front of a vanity mirror, metaphorically and literally. Outside the bathroom where this is occurring, Carnahan ratchets the tension up to feverish levels as a result of all the characters being moved like chess pieces to center around Buddy and his hotel. Each is poised to execute conflicting plans and they’re mostly unaware of each other’s presence and the impending point of violent destruction. And demolish they do.
Should I be troubled by the delight I exhibit upon seeing such epic displays of fictional hostility in a movie? I had a smile of anticipation through large sections of this ferocious plot. It’s a lovingly crafted hodgepodge of stuff that keeps giving you material to view even when you’re still digesting the previous bit of awesome. Smokin’ Aces is an ode to the ancestry of gritty cop dramas while simultaneously dancing the routines found in the newest line of off-the-wall gangster farces. Like Buddy walking a tightrope between truth and fabrication, Smokin’ Aces skips along a razor’s edge between John Woo’s style of operatic, heroic bloodshed and mindless, stupid mayhem. There are several points where it nearly topples over into the latter, but Carnahan always saves the movie from this fate by injecting a well-timed joke into the affair or heightening the pathos of a character’s death.
Carnahan did similar work with his impressive indie debut, the relatively unknown comedic crime drama Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. Here he’s got a larger sandbox to play in with more actors, bigger guns, and a higher budget. Carnahan effectively uses these tools to make a flashy, high-speed, MTV generation picture. Smokin’ Aces never becomes as memorable as, say, Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but it nicely blends comedy, drama, and action into a tasty cinematic slurpee for the moviegoer thirsty for quality entertainment at the start of the new year. It’s even topped off with a twist of ‘Surprise Ending,’ which is easy enough to ignore if it doesn’t suit your palate. No, I’m sorry, but it can’t be left off the beverage.