Smokin' Aces Carnahan

Welcome to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where everyone is zeroing on Buddy “Aces” Israel. The sleazy illusionist Aces (Jeremy Piven) grew up in a world full of card sharks, gamblers, killers, and thugs. By 21, he was keeping company with major criminal muscle headlining sold-out shows at MGM's main room.

After becoming the unofficial mascot for the Vegas mob, Aces started believing his own press and buying into the hype. He decides to showcase his showbiz power and parlay it into a life of crime. He wants to be his own mob boss Hollywood movies make it look so easy. What aces winds up doing is running afoul of the very organization that had taken him in, and his one-time benefactor, mob power broker Primo Sparazza, becomes his mortal enemy.

Rumors of a $1,000,000 hit fee, fronted by Sparazza, hits the streets and spreads far and wide, attracting an assortment of degenerate psychopaths and assassinsall gunning for the bounty on his head. Apparently, Aces has agreed to turn the state's evidence against his criminal cronies in Vegas in order to save himself from life in prison. The FBI, sensing a chance to use this small-time con to bring down big-time target Sparazza, places Aces into protective custody, under the supervision of two agents dispatched to Aces' hideout.

When writer-director Joe Carnahan came onto the indie film scene at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival with the raw cop drama, “Narc,” he left audiences shocked. This drama, for which Carnahan received Best Director Independent Spirit Award nomination, was recognized as an original yet genre film. Some film critics deemed it “explosive stuff” with “seething passion” and “velocity.

His second feature, “Smokin' Aces,” was financed and nurtured by the team at Working Title Films, who were willing to gamble on a volatile mix of eccentric characters, dark humor, unorthodox form, and raw violence, all twisted in a jigsaw of a plot.

Snap to the Pace

“I thought it would be nice to write something that was fun to read,” says Carnahan. “In trying to connect these disparate events and characters so they coalesce and feel that they're intrinsically linked, I wanted to write it on the page the way it would be cut together so it would have a real snap to the pace and not let up. It's also very, very black comedy.”

Carnahan winnowed the story and delivered a version that resembled a movie, though it was still over 135 pages long. Says producer Robert Graf: “The page count was long, because Carnahan tends to write like a novelist. He's very descriptive and writes florid passages about blood and guys flying through the air in bits.

In his script, Carnahan created a larger-than-life, hyper-real world crammed with human drama, tough emotion, and ambiguous boundaries against a backdrop of mayhem and destruction.

Wide Array of Characters

The inhabitants of his mind included characters from uptight FBI agents and washed-up magicians to the mobsters old guard, sleazy bail bondsmen, tarnished vice cops, street assassins, torture experts, bottom-feeding lawyers and three demented mercenaries, who all converge on Lake Tahoe at the Nomad Casino penthouse suite.

Offers Carnahan: “This array of characters and all the sundry freak shows they meet along the way are the spine of the movie. My story picks up three days before protagonist Buddy “Aces” Israel is going to meet with Federal prosecutors and give up the whole racket in a move the FBI believes will dismantle what's left of the mob in this country. You catch him on the dying gasp of his criminal career, about to enter the witness protection program and disappear.”

Creative Casting

A production of the size and scope of “Smokin' Aces” requires creative casting. Carnahan decided to bring unknown actors together with seasoned professionals. He says: “Securing the right actor for the correct role was more important than star-fueled billing. Ultimately, it's the best people for the job. If that means unknowns, then it's unknowns; if that means all major stars, then it's all major stars. I was really lucky to get an eclectic cast.”

Star Illusionist Inspired by Sinatra-

Carnahan relates: “Buddy is based on my fascination with two things: Las Vegas particularly a schmaltzy Vegas of 1960s and 1970sand Frank Sinatra's quasi-association with the mob. I always thought if Sinatra ever decided to parlay his entertainment status into a completely different venue and become a thug that would be a fascinating character to follow. I thought that he'd wind up tracking mud all over the place and screwing everybody up.

Jermey Piven

Jeremy Piven was interested in working with Carnahan immediately after seeing “Narc.” He found the experience to be visceral and authentic. Notes Carnahan: “An actor can complete a role you wrote, and it becomes something wholly other than what you intended, which is where I get the big charge as the director. Watching Jeremy transform himself into Buddy Israel and making that character whole was a joy.”

Trio of FBI Men

On one side of the law, Carnahan wanted to cast a trio of men who could bring their signature styles to the FBI suits who aim to pull Aces into protective custody. He found that in Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, and Andy Garcia.

Reynolds plays the intensely patriotic FBI Agent Richard Messner, who is a noble character and the heart of the story. Carnahan thinks audiences will attach themselves to Messner.

The role of Donald Carruthers, a vet G-man, went to Ray Liotta. Messner sees Carruthers as a friend, brother, and father figure, all at once. For Carnahan, “there's a fine line between a fraternal relationship and a paternal one.”

FBI Deputy Director Stanley Locke, the man running the investigation who sends the men on the mission to take Aces into custody, is played by vet Andy Garcia. For Carnahan, “Locke is the man running the investigation, and there's a twist in the plot. At times, he is the only person aware of it.”

Alicia Keys

Making her screen feature debut, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Alicia Keys plays Georgia Sykes, the bad girl-street assassin.

Says Carnahan: “I'm not sure Alicia ever thought she would make her film debut playing a girl packing a gun, dressed like a hooker. I credit her for flying in the face of that and saying, 'My audience knows me for who I am as a singer, but I'm going to give them something unexpected for my turn as an actress.

Recalls Keys: “The more I read the script, the more intrigued I became. It was not only so interesting that each character had its own life, but I loved the way that every story combined into the next story. Everything you thought that it was, it was not. By the time I got to the end, I was enamored.”