Smokin' Aces

An ensemble of talented actors, both young and veterans, is wasted in Joe Carnahan's third feature, “Smokin' Aces,” an exploitation film that's ultra violent and ultra senseless.

As a follow-up to Carnahan's second feature, “Narc,” a well-acted if also hysterical and incoherent cop drama, “Smokin' Aces” manifests the same problems, a weak ear for realistic dialogue and logical plot and a penchant for staging bloodshed and mayhem just in order to impress. Except that now the stakes are higher-with a bigger budget to match-and the sophomore effort doesn't show any evolution of Carnahan as a filmmaker.

“Smokin' Aces” is a similar kind of movie to his debut, “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane” and “Narc”–only bigger, noisier, and sillier. In fact, title of the first feature could have been applied to Carnahan's second and third film!

Moviesh from start to finish, “Smokin' Aces' feels like a tribute to the very American Quentin Tarantino and the very British Guy Ritchie. After watching Carnahan's two films, you may be relieved that he didn't end up directing Tom Cruise in the franchise “MI:3,” a project to which he was attached.

The yarn is set in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where everyone seems to be 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 begins to believe his own press and buy into the hype. As a result, 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 enemy.

In the press notes, Carnahan says that lead character Buddy Aces is based on two sources: My fascination with Las Vegas, particularly a schmaltzy Vegas of 1960s and 1970s, and with 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.”

Rumors of a $1,000,000 hit fee, fronted by Sparazza, spread around quickly, attracting an assortment of degenerate psychopaths and assassins–all gunning for the bounty on his head. It turns out, 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 Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), places Aces into protective custody, under the supervision of two agents dispatched to Aces' hideout.

When Carnahan's “Narc” premiered in the dramatic competition at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, some critics (not me) were impressed with the crime-policier's raw explosive stuff, tough, unsentimental nature, energetic pacing, and seething velocity. Carnahan's second effort must have equally impressed the respected British company, Working Title Films, which financed and nurtured the movie.

On paper, all the ingredients for a mildly entertaining item are here, a volatile mix of eccentric characters, dark humor, and raw violence, twisted in a jigsaw of a plot. But as told on screen, the yarn jumps around, as if the director were in a hurry or was concerned that the audience might have too much time to think. Then the tale reaches a conclusion that's not only weak but also arbitrary.

There may have been more logic in the script than in the final cut on screen, perhaps a greater concern to connect in a logical and engaging way disparate events and characters so that they coalesce into something more coherent.

The drama's inhabitants are colorful, all right. They includ uptight FBI agents, washed-up magicians, old guard mobsters, sleazy bail bondsmen, tarnished vice cops, street assassins, torture experts, bottom-feeding lawyers, demented mercenaries, all converging on Lake Tahoe at the Nomad Casino penthouse suite.

The story picks up three days before protagonist Buddy “Aces” Israel meets with Federal prosecutors in a move that the FBI believes will dismantle the mob. On the dying gasp of his criminal career, he is about to enter the witness protection program and disappear.

On one side of the law, Carnahan has a trio of men who bring their signature styles to the FBI suits aiming to pull Aces into protective custody. They are played by three gifted actors: Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta (who was also in “Narc”), and Andy Garcia. Reynolds is cast as the intensely patriotic FBI Agent Richard Messner, meant to be a noble character and the story's moral center. Liotta is Donald Carruthers, a vet G-man, perceived by Messner as a friend, brother, and father figure, all at once; the movie plays on the familiar notion of the fine line that exists between a fraternal and a paternal relationship. Garcia is FBI Deputy Director Stanley Locke, who runs the investigation, sending the men on the mission to take Aces into custody.

The movie doesn't lack in characters, or rather figure-types. The above trio is contrasted with another trio of bounty hunters and ex-cops, looking for a quick buck by snatching Aces from under the FBI and the thugs' hands. They are played by Ben Affleck as bail bondsman Jack Dupree, Peter Berg as “Pistol” Peet Deeks, a disillusioned ex-vice cop who is recruited by Dupree, and Martin Henderson as Hollis Elmore, the reticent ex-cop and Deeks' frequent sparring partner.

Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Alicia Keys makes her big-screen debut as bad girl-street assassin Georgia Sykes. Dressed like a hooker, she can pack a gun just like the macho men surrounding her. Sykes is paired by her booker, big pimpin' Loretta Wyman (Davenia McFadden) with a ruthless partner to smoke Aces: Sharice Watt (played by Taraji Henson), a little woman with a big gun. Whether you see these female figures as a sign of progress in the kinds of roles allotted to women would depend on your definition of progress.

Structurally, the movie, which is told in flashbacks, is a mess. As a writer, Carnahan is intrigued by a larger-than-life, hyper-real world, crammed with florid and lurid speeches, ambiguous boundaries between good cops and bad cops, but mostly with mayhem and destruction, and tons of blood spilled and guys flying through the air–literally.

If “Smokin' Aces” came out ten years ago, we would have classified it as yet another by-product of the “Tarantino Effect” on indie cinema. But released in 2007, the movie is both old-fashioned and too familiar, just an exercise in futile violence.

Reviewed by J. Kaufman