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Smokin' Aces   C-

Universal Pictures / Working Title Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joe Carnahan
Writer: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Peter Berg, Taraji Henson, Chris Pine, Martin Henderson, Jason Bateman, Nestor Carbonell, Common.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's an old Pink Panther movie where Inspector Clouseau has a price on his head. A gaggle of competing assassins descends on him en masse, and through various bits of slapstick bumbling, he inadvertently dispatches the lot of them. Smokin' Aces gives the impression of being a similar romp, albeit with harsher edges and a nastier disposition. Set up a clueless schlub in some sleazy Nevada hotel suite, add a pile of colorful hit men looking for some quick cash, and enjoy the zany mayhem which ensues when they each outdo themselves to cap him. Writer-director Joe Carnahan originally established himself as a passable Tarantino clone with Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, then seemed to transcend it with the brilliant Narc. Smokin' Aces looks at first like a reversion to early form -- not an ideal direction, but promising a little quick dirty fun at least.

Sadly, even that proves too optimistic. With a huge cast and a complicated plot, Carnahan just can't keep all the plates spinning. Though sprinkled with tart dialogue and a few grimly amusing punch lines, the affair lacks the manic energy it needs to hang together. The buildup takes far too long, forcing us to wait through interminable elevator rides and terse conversations before unloading the amoral bloodbath we all presumably paid to see. And too many of the characters feel incomplete, their stories abandoned on arbitrary whims that leave too much unresolved. A certain sprawling messiness can be intoxicating on rides like this, but Smokin' Aces lets it all get out of hand far too quickly.

It does produce some engaging clay pigeons, however, starting with Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Vegas magician whom one character describes as "the great white whale" of mob snitches. The Feds want him in custody to testify against a criminal kingpin, and promptly dispatch a couple of agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) to pick him up from the Tahoe high-rise where he has ensconced himself. The Mafia, for its part, has put a million-dollar bounty on Israel's head, ensuring that a wide variety of killers and lunatics will come crawling out of the woodwork to hunt him down. (My favorites are the Tremor brothers, a trio of neo-Nazis who view their hits as a chance to reenact the highlights of Gotterdammerung.)

Such a simple notion demands one of two things to succeed: 1) technical creativity to render the action visually appealing; or 2) a lot of wit in the superfluous plot twists heaped upon it to fill screen time. Smokin' Aces has neither, though it makes a game effort. The early scenes show promise, and the large cast has enough enjoyable standouts to pump some life into them. Carnahan also has a touch for hard-boiled dialogue: goofy and overheated, to be sure, but not without a certain guilty appeal. It works best in the first half-hour or so, as the scenario is being set up and actors like Ben Affleck (as a mustachioed bail bondsman) and Taraji Henson (as a pint-sized lesbian sniper) can spin the lines out with an enjoyable spark.

Too soon, however, things come apart at the seams. The need to hold our attention forces Carnahan to develop an inordinate number of subplots that feel strained in the extreme. That, in turn, sets up a need to turn his characters into something more than empty cartoons, which clashes badly with the faux hip postmodernism in which they constantly wallow. They're a nasty bunch and we're basically here to see them pumped full of holes; though Smokin' Aces tries hard, we don't have a rooting interest in a single one. The easy early banter gives way to an excruciating crawl towards the big payoff, dominated by frantic action that ironically feels slower than molasses in a deep freeze. Having established an intricate web of narrative crossovers, Carnahan then begins abandoning them left and right, transforming the clockwork complexity into a shattered pile of dead ends.

To it, Smokin' Aces adopts a painfully derivative visual style: two parts Tony Scott mixed with one part Guy Ritchie. The bleached colors and funky editing tricks on display were old hat about the time Clinton left office, and while they lend the proceedings a certain shabby zest, they resolutely fail to raise the energy to an acceptable level. The climax, too, feels like a bust, hamstrung by scattered incidents and a clunky postmortem revelation that advertises itself way too soon. Within that, the film's darker noir aspects become little more than exploitative sleaze. Carnahan has too much going for him to fall into such straits, making his tired work here all the more frustrating.

Smokin' Aces never set out to be another Narc, I suppose, and a letdown is inevitable after such a triumph. Yet the impression remains that Carnahan tried his best to have fun with a lesser concept, only to be undone by the very diminished expectations he hoped to embrace. We ask for so little from movies like this; the least it can to is place its disposable thrills in a decently constructed package. Otherwise, there's no reason to get involved, no reason to pay attention, and no reason to stay in our seats once the house lights go down. Even modest movies need a better justification, and Smokin' Aces simply doesn't have the discipline to find it.

Review published 01.26.2007.

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