Smokin' Aces (United Kingdom/United States/France, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Smokin' Aces is Tarantino lite - a vague and unsuccessful attempt to bring together a bunch of offbeat, unrelated characters in a situation where a bloody resolution is inescapable. Like an absentminded chef, however, writer/director Joe Carnahan has gone into this endeavor without the full complement of ingredients, and the missing ones are crucial to the final product's consistency. The characters are uniformly uninteresting - a bunch of ill-defined caricatures who never attain even a semblance of identity. The undercurrent of dark humor is rarely amusing and the screenplay's supposed cleverness is rarely ingenious. The setup takes too long and the resolution is a letdown. The movie demands an attentive audience to follow the diverse characters and plot threads but, in the end, it fails to reward that attention.

The story concerns Vegas lounge performer Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven), who has information critical to bringing down a mob boss. A $1 million price has been put on his head and killers and reprobates from all corners converge on Vegas, intending to kill Israel. Two FBI agents, Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta), are on the case but their efforts may be too little too late. Buddy has his own small army of protectors but they may be outmanned and outgunned by the legions of hitmen approaching his penthouse apartment. There is some good news for Buddy - since each of them wants the money, they have no problem eliminating one another on the way to the prize.

The implicit promise of a movie like this is that there will be a big twist at the end that leaves us smirking at the film's audacity. Carnahan tries to deliver but what he comes up with is predictable, low-key, and unsatisfying. As the end credits begin rolling, we're left in the audience wondering, "Is that all?" In a way, the whole movie is like that - promising more than it delivers. It's a shell game. The movie keeps switching things up in the hope we won't notice that not much is going on. Smokin' Aces offers colorful characters, but none is well developed and it's hard to care about anyone. Even the individuals with the most screen time - Buddy and Messner - don't come close to achieving three-dimensionality. A living cartoon (which is what Smokin' Aces is) still needs a protagonist worth caring about; but this movie doesn't have that.

The film takes risks. Just because a character is played by a big name doesn't mean that individual will survive for long or have a lot of screen time. A couple of the deaths are unexpected because we make assumptions about how long actors will be around. It's here that Carnahan is successful, but the shock value evaporates quickly. Once he has done this once or twice, the viewer understands that no one is assured to make it to the end credits alive, but this strategy is effective only when we care enough about the characters for it to matter. We don't and it doesn't.

On the surface, Smokin' Aces takes its cues from the work of Tarantino, Guy Richie, and Robert Rodriguez, but Carnahan's mastery of the techniques of violent comedy, brutal action, and slick dialogue is imperfect. He has an uneven resume - he made the low-budget exploitation thriller Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane and the effective cop movie Narc. Smokin' Aces is closer to the former than the latter, and that's unfortunate. It hopes to cover its lack of sophistication with big guns, out-of-control lunatics, Mexican standoffs, and Mission: Impossible masks. (Although he stays away from the hyperstylization that characterized the earlier efforts.) Such things only go so far - not far enough to make a good movie, as it turns out.

Amidst all of this, Ryan Reynolds provides an effective performance as the FBI agent who's always a step behind the bad guys and Jeremy Piven is suitably strung out as the drugged, paranoid victim. A-list actors like Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck, and Andy Garcia don't have enough screen time to leave an impression. This isn't an actors' movie, however, and its failure isn't the result of inadequate or ineffective performances. Smokin' Aces doesn't work because the screenplay is too lean. There's not enough material here to support a feature film. It takes too long for all hell to break loose and, even when that happens, it's not the free-for-all we expect. The movie feels like a 30 minute short that is stretched beyond its natural length. In the end, Smokin' Aces has moments when it smolders, but it never catches fire.

Smokin' Aces (United Kingdom/United States/France, 2007)

Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jeremy Piven, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Ben Affleck, Common
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore
Music: Clint Mansell
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2007-01-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1