Universal // 2006 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // July 16th, 2007
May the best hitman win.
Writer/director Joe Carnahan exploded onto the film scene with his second film, the harsh, unflinching cop drama Narc in 2002. The visual confidence and seeming authenticity in that picture piqued curiosity for whatever his follow-up would be, which for a while was destined to be Mission Impossible: III. When creative differences led Carnahan to leave that project, he turned his attention to Smokin' Aces. Is the promise he showed with Narc fulfilled here?
Las Vegas magician Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven, Grosse Pointe Blank) has about reached the end of his run flirting with the mob and living large, deciding to go into the witness protection program and turn on his cohorts.
At the same time, mysterious mob boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin, The Scorpion King) puts a hit out on Israel, requesting the delivery of the man's heart. An imposing number of professionals, including Georgia Skye (singer Alicia Keys, Glory Road), Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell, Lost), Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan, The Game), and the crazy neo-Nazi Tremor Brothers are dispatched to dispatch the soon-to-be rat. On their way to protect Israel in his Lake Tahoe penthouse are FBI agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds, Just Friends) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas), while bail bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck, Armageddon) and his partners are on their way to collect a skipped bond, oblivious to the danger toward which they are headed.
When everyone arrives at the hotel, bloodshed is inevitable, and no one is guaranteed to make it out alive.
There's a lot of potential in Smokin' Aces, with some sequences that are seriously cool, and others that show an unexpected amount of emotion. In fact, the vast majority of scenes is entertaining, slick, and packs a mean punch, featuring plenty of tough guys saying tough things.
The number of storylines and characters to introduce -- played by a most impressive cast that also includes Jason Bateman (The Break-Up), Matthew Fox (Lost), Andy Garcia (Ocean's Eleven), and Peter Berg (Collateral) -- necessitates some heavy expositional scenes up front, but surprisingly this is not a problem. The dialogue is sharp enough that we don't mind characters laying out the rather complex narrative, telling a (very) little bit about them at the same time. And when we get to the centerpiece shootout, it's both cinematically exciting and made much more interesting by the presence of a huge 50 caliber rifle being fired from another building.
A wide range of visual techniques are employed in the name of upping the cool factor: skipping frames, changing speeds, traveling the camera in impossible ways. Cinematographer Maruo Fiore (Training Day) makes the colors by turns over-saturated and desaturated to help keep track of the plethora of character arcs and time periods. Smokin' Aces often has the feel of a late-90s Tony Scott film, more restrained than his most recent work, but with the same strong sense of visual storytelling. Production design by Martin Whist (The Island) pulls everything together, complementing the cinematography and Carnahan's choices (although the penthouse in which Piven spends most of the picture is one of the most obvious sets I've ever seen). The look and style is to be savored, one of the great pleasures of the film.
The story itself has got more depth than I expected, with a nice payoff at the end for a mystery that doesn't even seem like a mystery while you're watching; it's not any huge achievement in storytelling, mind you, but it's got more to it than you might expect. Plotlines are juggled quickly and the fast pace is established early. But somewhere between the set-up and when the bullets start flying, Smokin' Aces starts to bog down a bit, taking tangential side trips that delay the convergence we're waiting for and tend to spend more time with the characters we dislike at the expense of those we prefer. The result is an uneven overall experience, as one minute the movie wants to be a roller-coaster ride, while the next it's a languorous character study of uninteresting criminals.
The most egregious offence is a bizarre and pointless sequence where a wounded character happens upon an isolated cabin inhabited by an instantly annoying kid who does karate and sports rapper lingo. You can practically hear a self-satisfied director laughing at his own cleverness over it all, and it might've worked in a different movie. But what is this scene doing here? It feels totally out of place, bringing the proceedings to a screeching halt, and is an example of Carnahan's unfortunate tendency to include weirdness for weirdness' sake, the peculiar habits of the Tremor brothers embodying this policy.
It's too bad, as the flawed pacing makes what could have been a great movie into a good one. But regardless of what you think of the pacing, you can't knock the performances Carnahan shepherds from his actors, who are uniformly engaging and believable, from musicians Alicia Keys and Common, making his feature film debut, to seasoned professional Garcia, to the hilarious off-kilter turn by Jason Bateman. The real standout in this ensemble crew is Reynolds, giving his most adult performance to date that's funny, tragic, and tough. I'm really looking forward to whatever Reynolds does next after seeing Smokin' Aces.
The DVD presentation is sharp, giving a good representation of Carnahan's varied visuals. Par for a transfer of a recent film, there's almost no sign of grain, plenty of fine detail, and no noticeable edge enhancement. Audio, in Dolby Digital 5.1, is fairly aggressive, making good use of the surround channels for ambience, gunshots, and the excellent music, both well-chosen songs and seamless stylings of Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream). This disc looks and sounds great.
On the surface, Smokin' Aces seems to have gotten the star treatment on DVD, but most of the special features are disappointing. The commentary with Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen (The Great New Wonderful) is the most enlightening, with the two discussing why they made the choices they did, how the final product evolved throughout the process, and what inspired the various characters. The two have a laid back, friendly rapport and make for an enjoyable listen. The second commentary, with the director and actors Common, Christopher Holley, and Zach Cumer, is more about commenting on the action on-screen with little real insight, and Carnahan tends to repeat things he said on the first. About eleven minutes of deleted and extended scenes are included, all worth watching but none of which are missed from the final picture. There's also a more succinct version of the ending, referred to as the "cowboy ending," that would've been a much less satisfying way to end the story, although it's pretty cool on its own. "The Big Gun" is a short look at Carnahan behind the scenes talking about the pressures of filming, the importance of having fun, and showing a lot of love for the movie he's making. Finally, there's a brief featurette on stunts and effects, and a series of 2-3 minute blurbs dedicated to each of the main character groups. A lot of topics are touched upon in a broad sense, but there's little depth.
Smokin' Aces is ultimately a fun, intense ride that's well worth checking out, even if it is a victim of Carnahan's tendency to include scenes that work well on their own but detract from the picture as a whole.
Not guilty, but released with a warning.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted and Extended Scenes
* Cowboy Ending
* The Line-Up
* The Big Gun
* Shoot 'Em Up: Stunts & Effects
* Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Joe Carnahan and Editor Robert Frazen
* Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Joe Carnahan, Common, Christopher Holley and Zach Cumer
* Official Site