Director Joe Carnahan made one heck of a big studio splash with 2002’s Narc, one of the most under-appreciated gritty cop flicks of the past twenty years. With Narc he displayed a knack for pacing, atmosphere (you could practically taste the grunge of the Detroit back alleys), and dizzying, enthralling action (see that film’s opening sequence). That said, watching him pander to fifteen-year-old males with the ultra-stupid Smokin’ Aces is a painful endeavor. Sure, the film looks slick, but the screenplay is a mess and it only comes across as absurd that a film that has no regard for human life for its first 100 minutes asks us to stop and care for its final eight.
Borrowing liberally from every double-crossing-snitch movie ever made, the plot centers on the plight of Buddy “Aces” Israel (Piven), a Las Vegas magician who’s also a lapdog for the mob. Word gets out quickly when Israel decides to testify against the mob, which of course wants him dead. Soon a laundry list of hit men (and women) is competing for the kill (Israel himself) and the subsequent $1 million bounty. Two cops, Donald Carruthers (Liotta) and Richard Messner (Reynolds), are dispatched to protect Israel, but it could be too little, too late as the entire lot descends upon Israel’s Lake Tahoe penthouse.
Carnahan spends the first thirty minutes just introducing us to the characters, which, of course, is done in stylized title cards. He establishes the no-nonsense attitude that goes with the genre, but then makes the crucial mistake of relegating the rest of the film to mere buildup to a finale that isn’t all that exciting. The whole shebang is relatively light on action and instead depends upon jarring flashbacks, excessive profanity and racial slurs to try and get a rise out of its audience. The only developed subplot, the strategic relationship between hit women Georgia Sykes (Keys) and Sharrice Watters (Henson), collapses due to character stupidity and an empty payoff.
The bulk of the cast is wasted due to lack of screen time and unceremonious deaths. Piven delivers a few crackling monologues, but spends most of the movie laying around the penthouse. Liotta, who ran away with Carnahan’s Narc, is once again effective here, as is Ryan Reynolds, who is unfairly asked to go serious in the film’s final minutes. It’s actually Jason Bateman, in a bit part as a bum lawyer, who owns this show. Everyone else is an instantly forgettable cliché.
Smokin’ Aces is a haphazard attempt to cash in on a genre that comes and goes in popularity. Whenever Quentin Tarantino redefines it, it’s popular. Otherwise, it’s damaged goods. It’s just a shame that a talent like Carnahan had to fall under its spell, only to dish out a clunker that isn’t really entertaining or fun.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 108 Minutes
Rating: R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use.
Theatrical Release: January 26, 2007
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Taraji Henson