Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a sleazy Las Vegas stage magician, has agreed to turn state’s evidence against prominent and powerful mob boss, Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). Primo, intent on doing away with the lousy snitch, puts out word that he will pay $1,000,000 for Buddy’s head. The offer attracts every hit man and woman within shouting distance and these deadly assassins descend on the Lake Tahoe penthouse hotel where Israel is hiding in “Smokin’ Aces.”
As I watched the frenetic plot unfold in “Smokin Aces,” I couldn’t shake comparing it to the extended standoff and shootout finale in director Tony Scott’s far superior “True Romance” (1993). Think the latter film’s violent finish extended and laced with LSD and you get an idea of what helmer/scribe Joe Carnahan does with his testosterone (and estrogen for the femme killers) infused black comedy/actioner.
Buddy is a middling night club prestidigitator who suffers from his giving in to such excesses as sex, drugs and booze. He has gotten the goods on Sparazza and the FBI, sensing that they can bring down the big time hood, dispatch two agents, Messner and Carruthers (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta), to Buddy’s Tahoe hideout to bring him in. But, the million buck bounty on Aces head also attracts a true rogues’ gallery of killers, cons, hoods, gun toting babes and the totally crazy Tremor brothers. As the good guys and bad guys converge on the Lake Tahoe luxury hotel, Buddy blithely continue his debauched lifestyle, making his whereabouts known to all.
Smokin’ Aces” is the kind of flick that the huge cast must have had a ball making. The machine gun rapid, peppery dialog and vast arsenal of weaponry (including a .50 caliber sniper rifle that can kill from a mile away, wielded by hit lady Sharice (Taraji P. Henson)) give the large cast of characters lots to chew on and shoot up. But, there is more to a dark comedy than copious gunfire and snappy lines and this is where Smokin’…” falls short. With the contract kill set up in the early minutes of the film, there is little more than that to sustain the rest of the film that inevitably ends with a shootout of near epic proportions. A side story of mobster deception and a heart transplant (?!) feels tacked on and near pointless.
Carnahan, who made his mark with the gritty crime thriller “Narc,” flexes his stylistic talents with a film that is long on flashy looks and violence but short on substance. The huge ensemble cast munches the scenery with relish but, with few exceptions (Henson’s smart mouthed Sharice and her gorgeous partner Georgia (singer Alicia Keyes in her acting debut) are standouts), never get beyond their 2D characters. It’s an embarrassment of thespian riches with the likes of Liotta, Reynolds, Henson, Keyes, Piven, Martin Henderson, Andy Garcia, Peter Berg and the rest filling their respective roles. But, with so many actors given too little to flesh them out, the result is a fun roller coaster of a flick that didn’t stay with me long after the credits ran.
Director Carnahan and his behind the camera crew have a fine eye for action and “Smokin’ Aces” looks good, but good looks do not make a great movie. This is a cotton candy film, not a satisfying meal like the aforementioned “True Romance.” That film had memorable characters – remember Gary Oldman as the white Rastaman drug dealer, Dennis Hopper as the main character’s dad and Christopher Walken as the mob enforcer, among many others – while “Aces” does not.
I enjoy shot ‘em up action and gritty dialog as much as any fan of this genre but I also want a story that will stay with me. “Smokin’ Aces” didn’t stay with me. It is fun (in an ultra-violence kind of way) but it’s not fantastic. I give it a C+.
Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven, HBO's "Entourage") is a rich, strung-out illusionist card sharp with ties to the mob he treats cockily. When a hit is put out on him by former benefactor Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin, "The Scorpion King"), opportunists come out of the woodwork and a multi-pronged attack on Lake Tahoe, Nevada is intent on "Smokin' Aces."
In retrospect, Tom Cruise's break with writer/director Joe Carnahan ("Narc") over creative differences on "Mission: Impossible III" looks pretty damn smart. Carnahan's response is the type of cartoonish Tarantino wannabe overload filmmaking style that is just so over. It's like "True Romance" crossed with "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" remade with the artistic vision of "Domino."
Carnahan has attracted an impressive cast, but he throws so many of them at you in his opening frames it's head spinning. Scuzzy Vegas bail bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck, "Hollywoodland") narrates Aces' history with the mob as he shoots a game of pool to lay the groundwork. In quick succession we're introduced to FBI Agents Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta, "Goodfellas") and Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds, 2005's "The Amityville Horror"), dispatched by FBI Deputy Director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia, "Ocean's Twelve") to protect Aces so he can turn state's evidence; hit woman booker Loretta Wyman (Davenia McFadden, "American Gun") sends lethal lesbians Georgia Sykes (singer Alicia Keys), the catnip, and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson, "Hustle & Flow"), the firepower; Darwin (Chris Pine, "Just My Luck"), Jeeves (Kevin Durand, "Walking Tall") and Lester Tremor (Maury Sterling) are chainsaw-wielding, mad-cap Road-Warrioresque neo-Nazis while torture specialist Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) and 'Mission Impossible-style' master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan, 2006's "When a Stranger Calls" hark from overseas. And oh yeah, Dupree's been brought in by corrupt lawyer Rip Reed (Jason Bateman, TV's "Arrested Development," hands down the most worthwhile thing about this over-orchestrated mess) who also calls in ex-cops 'Pistol' Pete Deeks (Peter Berg, "Collateral") and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson, "Bride & Prejudice"). The film also features rapper Common as Aces' right hand man Sir Ivy, Joel Edgarten ("Kinky Boots") as Aces' dense bodyguard and Wayne Newton as himself.
In Carnahan's script, Buddy's such a despicable loser that there is no rooting interest in seeing him survive - at least until we discover the ridiculous 'real' reason for all the mayhem. The only characters who develop any sympathy are Carruthers and Messner who seem to have a latent romance that parallels Sharice's pining for her less deserving partner. The violence is intricately choreographed, but as over the top as an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, with bazookas being fired from one building towards a hallway full of blood-splattered foes slipping and sliding in their own gore across the way. It's all supposed to be ironically, blackly funny but the over sensory onslaught just produces exhaustion and the bored sense of having seen it all before.
"Smokin' Aces" tries to flaunt an indie-cred hipness, but in the end its as hollow as an R-rated video game. Credit is due to Liotta, a surprising Reynolds and especially the hilarious Bateman for occasionally raising the film above its level.
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