Smokin' Aces (2006) / Action-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive violence, sexuality, some nudity, and strong language
Running Time: 109 min.

Cast: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Alex Rocco, Joseph Ruskin, Martin Henderson, Alicia Keyes, Taraji P. Henson, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Curtis Armstrong, Peter Berg, Christopher Holley, Chris Pine, Vladimir Kulich, Tommy Flanagan, Joel Edgerton, Wayne Newton
Director: Joe Carnahan
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan
Review published February 1, 2007

Smokin' Aces starts off with FBI agents Messner (Reynolds, Just Friends) and Carruthers (Liotta, The Last Shot) surveilling the home of a notorious mob boss named Primo Sparazza (Riskin, Robin and the 7 Hoods), whereupon they overhear a plot to assassinate a Las Vegas entertainer named Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Piven, Two for the Money), who has become one of the biggest FBI informants in years, The contract pays $1 million to whoever kills Israel and takes out his heart, so naturally, the leading hit men from around the world come out of the woodworks for this top-dollar prize. Israel is offered refuge in the luxury suite of a Tahoe hotel, but word of his whereabouts catches on fast, leaving the FBI with their hands full in trying to protect their key informant from getting put on ice by some of the cleverest, most ruthless professionals in the assassination business.

Writer-director Joe Carnahan (Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane), who showed such promise in the gritty, violent crime drama Narc, takes a step back in this overcooked action-thriller which borrows more than a page from the style of other recent thrillers, such as True Romance, The Way of the Gun, Revolver, Lucky Number Slevin, and a myriad others in the post-Pulp Fiction era of colorful villains, snarky banter, offbeat humor, and ultra-violence galore. Carnahan clearly shows that he can copy from the best of them, but as of yet, hasn't quite been able to come up with a distinct style of his own. As a result, his films are mostly targeted to genre die-hards who aren't expecting anything else but slickly-directed regurgitations of the same thing that they got years ago, back when most of the things featured in these films were fresh.

Carnahan certainly possesses the tools for making a kooky character-driven, high-octane action film, but suffers here by trying to be more clever than is necessary to deliver the entertainment goods. First, there are far too many characters, each playing up his or her own one-note stereotype as a crutch to keep them easy to identify without having to employ a certain thing called character development into the mix. Piven is nervously funny, Liotta smolders, Reynolds is facetious, etc. Each actor is cast according to type for easy reads, with some of the less well-known supporting players cast because they fit a certain physical mold or exhibit eccentric personality ticks. This wouldn't be detrimental if any one character had even a third of the total screen time, but each is given his or her 15 minutes to shine, regardless of their utility to the plot.

Smokin' Aces plays out more like a series of scenes that pay off with action or laughs around a central theme, but with the exception of the first scene and final revelation, it's driven solely by energy and gusto instead of by its story. The direction is filled with the requisite eye candy; the cast is colorful, and there's quite a bit of explosive gunfire and bloodshed unleashed at regular intervals.  However, without a rooting interest in the success or failure of any of the characters or their missions, all that is left for us to admire is the packaging and visceral nature of Carnahan's delivery.

By the time the film hits its climax, what meager build-up it has dissolves into little more than a noisy, grisly free-for-all, with Carnahan tossing in a kitchen sink approach that smells more like desperation than someone in complete command of his characters. Even a late-minute romance is trotted out, as if someone needed an emotional element to cling to to make it feel complete.  It's too little too late; the characters are so cardboard, any further exploration is a waste of time anyway. Carnahan has more fun in creating each goofy character and having them interact, then kills them off after they've served their comedic or dramatic usefulness,

As long as you enjoy this sort of short-attention span style of filmmaking, perhaps you will come away feeling like you got your fill of darkly comic mayhem to justify the time and money spent. Unfortunately, for those looking for something more for their bucks than sensory titillation, Smokin' Aces provides enough distractions to keep you from turning away from the screen, but it never keeps you reeled in sufficiently to get truly excited when mortal peril erupts for any of the characters. For his next film, hopefully Carnahan goes back to the restraint that he showed in Narc by giving us a story to go along with his characters, and having us give a damn what happens to them before they are permanently dispatched.

 Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo