January 26, 2007

Smokin' Aces

Everyone loses in Carnahan's grisly mash of ultraviolence and pulpy underworld tropes

By Michelle Orange

Smokin' Aces, writer/director Joe Carnahan's follow-up to 2002's Narc, is an object lesson in punctuation. Like Aces star Ryan Reynolds' 2005 film Waiting..., that small adjustment in the title insists on something larger about the film; while it's true enough that larger loppings off are in store, in the case of Smokin' Aces, the abbreviated gerund's suggestion of toss-away cool is actually an inversion of the over-exerted, so-eagerly-edgy-it-could-never-be-cool tone I’d like to call "!?!". As in, "Can you believe how awesome it is to be a hitman on the clock!?! And to just not give a fuck who you smoke!?! Wouldn't it be wicked to wake up and find the bodies of a dozen naked prostitutes strewn across your penthouse like corpses!?!" Etcetera, etcetera, et-cet-era...

Fun Fact: Still Smokin' and Stroker Ace were both released in 1983; the year Smokin' Aces most readily (if unfortunately) calls to mind, however, is 1993, with Reservoir Dogs still smoldering, True Romance on deck and Pulp Fiction and a host of Guy-wannabes to come. The most interesting thing about Smokin' Aces is how a film so ugly and brutal, so joyous and stylized in its ultraviolence, manages to remind one of a more innocent time. That said, Carnahan's grisly, over-adrenalized ride wouldn't have cut it way back in the mid-'90s; trying too hard is the death of cool in any genre -- especially a dead one -- and Smokin’ Aces has all the sophisticated plotting of a splatter-happy video game, which it resembles more closely than anything that ever came out of Tarantino's pumpkin brain.

The last level in this particular game, then, is Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Vegas magician-turned-thug-turned-state's evidence who is holed up in a Lake Tahoe hotel penthouse awaiting transfer by two FBI agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta). Word has hit the street that Buddy is a rat, and mob boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) puts a one meeeellion dollar contract on his head (he would also like his heart -- sentimental?). In a lengthy, frenzied exposition we are introduced to the hitmen who respond to the call, including Ben Affleck as a dimwitted bail-bondsman, Alicia Keys as a homegirl assassin, and a pack of post-verbal, post-apocalyptic skinheads who roll their heads around, pop their eyes and wave their chainsaws in the air like they just don’t care. Matthew Fox and Jason Bateman have wonderful cameos that cleanse the palate all too briefly.

Between the Jewish, weaselly Israel, his right-hand man Sir Ivy (played by Common), the neo-Nazis, angry black bitches, completely ineffective white dudes and terrifying Italian Mafioso, Carnahan seems to be going for multiple levels of conflict and tension, but attempting social commentary in a film such as this is like dropping a depth charge in the kiddie pool. Money is what unites the criminals, of course, and what divides them, and the rest of the film plays out like a convict cook-off: May the best killer win. The timeline is stretched and squished like an accordion from scene to scene, and in this careless world there certainly isn't a character to care about, so you find yourself just waiting for more people to die, which isn't a very pleasant position to be in. Reynolds' FBI agent is ostensibly our point of reference, but he is spread too thinly across the glib, blood-slicked surface of the plot to gain any traction.

Smokin' Aces ultimately -- in an addition to the pulpy underworld tropes it conjures -- posits the government as the truly heinous element at work. At least contract killers know where they stand with one another; it's The Man you trust who can really bring the pain. !?!, indeed.

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