Smokin' Aces review by Matt Fuerst


A casual films nerd can be quite susceptible to lots of sabotage. I remember when Pulp Fiction came out. Quite the hit flick, to say the least. (I'd like to mention, and try to improve my rep, by mentioning that I saw Reservoir Dogs before I saw Pulp Fiction.) After Pulp Fiction hit, all of a sudden there was a slew of material being pushed out there with the name Quentin Tarantino attached. Destiny Turns on the Radio, about a billion seemingly random Kung Fu Movies, Four Rooms. This is 1994 we're talking about, so it's not like most of America could just pop onto their high speed internet connection and hit IMDB or Ain't It Cool News and see what was up. It was just a general state of confusion and lots of people rented a lot of movies they otherwise likely never would have cared about. Well, if Hollywood does anything well, it does the "attachment" game very, very well. If there's a "flavor of the week", well, start attaching it to projects!

It's kind of unfair to give Smokin' Aces, and it's director Joe Carnahan that kind of introduction, but sadly, it's fitting. You may know Carnahan's work, his introduction to the mainstream was an amazing film called NARC. It was an amazing mix of cop drama, personal drama, drug drama with some dashes of action. Really a highly above average film, and very impressive debut. Carnahan started to go a bit "Tarantino" and got involved in the BMW "Chase" series of commercials, but then fell of my radar for years. Years. Pretty disappointing for a guy that really delivered the goods on his first film. Well, fast forward to January, 2007, and my office mate rolls in one morning and says "Hey you see the trailer for Smokin' Aces? It's from that one guy that made that good movie a few years back." (He's very detail oriented like that.) I do my research and all of a sudden, watch the trailer, and the first words across the screen are "From the director of NARC". My fan-boy funny bone had been tweaked, and I thusly had a date with destiny, and Smokin' Aces. Carnahan not only directed Smokin' Aces, he wrote it as well. +1 Matt pre-likey points. And the topic matter seemingly contains copious quantities of guns and death. +2 Matt pre-likey points. I was pretty excited for this one. So how was it? Well, we'll find out shortly.

Smokin' Aces has an extremely simplistic story structure. Shakespeare this is not, though most of that hack's work is bush league too. Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a man wanted by the mob. A former big baller in the mob, Aces has fallen out of favor with the clan, and in his dying hours, the mob boss of Vegas has decreed that Aces must die. He puts a million dollar bounty on Aces head, er... well, actually his heart, since physical delivery of the heart is a requirement to fulfilling the contract. Aces knows the writing is on the wall, and in a desperation move, he locks himself in the penthouse of a Lake Tahoe casino.

That kind of cheddar brings some killers out of the wood work, and in enters our zany cast of assassins. Let's see, we've got the female duo - one for closeup work, one far away messy work; The Tremor brothers, three psychotic Neo Nazi butchers, willing to go head first into any situation; the Ultra deadly foreigner Pasquale Acosta; and master of disguise Lazlo Soot. All begin circling the hotel, trying to make their way up top to do Aces in and collect the bounty. Those are the "dark hats", there's also an eclectic cast of good guys, the "white hats": Bail Bondsman Jack Dupree and his sidekicks; FBI agents Richard Messner and Donald Carruthers.

The characters really are the show, since, well, having the bad guys show up, have a shootout with the good guys, and shortly thereafter kill or not kill Aces would be about a 10 minute long movie, and that's counting in gratuitous slow mo scenes. So, we've got a real focus on the characters themselves, not necessarily the story at hand. We're told the Tremor brothers are a bunch of insane killers, but then we're treated to taste of some of their previous works. We're told Lazlo is a master of disguise, but then we get to watch him be a master of disguise. Don't get me wrong, movies are a visual medium so I understand it's better to show than to say, but movies generally also exist to tell a story and move a story forward. When I think of characters "acting like" characters, I think of the TV show Friends. It existed not to tell stories (was someone really wondering what would happen when their corner coffee shop ran out of coffee?) but to just let the characters play out their roles. So this character building goes for really everyone involved in the movie, which sucks up the bulk of the runtime.

Eventually we navigate back on course to the plot, and a resolution is reached. I'll leave it ambiguous as to whether Aces gets smoked, or ends up surviving his death decree. What I will say, is that well after this resolution, the apex, the climax is reached, we are still watching the movie for the "explanation". I thought this was a serious error in judgement, for a "kooky character" movie about a group of assassins to get all in depth on who did what to who, who is related to who, etc... is really out of place. I watch a movie like Mulholland Drive, it ends and I say to myself "Damn, I wish that movie had like 15 minutes tacked on explaining what the hell I just saw." I watch Smokin' Aces, which tacks 15 minutes on the end and I'm stuck looking at my watch thinking "C'mon, no mas!".

Reflecting on my previous paragraphs I know I am coming off pretty harsh on Smokin' Aces and it really wasn't that bad. While I question the choice of focusing so much on the backgrounds of so many characters, the backstories themselves were appropriately action-packed and interesting. The actual "assaults" using various methods by the killers is pretty entertaining and very competently done. An ancillary character, Rip Reed (Jason Bateman) literally steals the show as a drunken lawyer hiring Bail Bondsman Dupree. His role is written so hilariously that the 5 minutes that Reed is on the screen will stay with you long after the movie is over. However, this hint at humor really left the rest of the film feeling needlessly black and dark. Some more dark humor would have been a great touch.

Well, I certainly thought Carnahan missed the mark with Smokin' Aces. There's a lot of potential with such an idea, a very good cast and his skills. But this isn't a movie the Carnahan movie I would recommend. But if you see a copy of NARC, give it a shot.

5 out of 10 Jackasses
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