January 29, 2007

Movie Review: Smokin' Aces

Joe Carnahan has delivered the first cinematic jolt into the 2006 season. However, this was not the jolt to kick the new year into action, but it was a step in the right direction. The heart beat monitor delivered a few signs of life. Smokin' Aces is an over the top action film that apes the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and a touch of Wayne Kramer. The resulting film has enough bloodshed and wild activity to hold your attention, but when it ends you will be left scratching your head as to whether you actually liked it or not.

Smokin' Aces is a movie that is predisposed with the style of its execution. It is more about the gunfire ballet and the pure mechanics of moving a great number of pieces into position. The fact that all of this requires an incredible suspension of disbelief is not a problem, what is a problem are all of the histrionics that we are forced to endure, it is like Carnahan is in love with the style that he is trying to infuse the film with. There is a distinct lack of substance and character development which threaten to sink the film.

I truly wanted to love Smokin' Aces. The trailers set a high bar, I loved the hyper-kinetic look, the promise of bullets and wild humor, and the impressive array of stars. I ws hoping for an experience not unlike last year's Running Scared, which greatly impressed me with the wild insanity that was able to retain its focus and make Paul Walker watchable. I would have settled for something like Ultraviolet, of which I am one of only a handful that actually liked it. What I got were some great action set pieces, some nice humor, and a story that went through too many hoops to force everything into position while never developing a character to like. I can honestly say that I did not care what happened to any of the characters. It did not matter one iota whether they all lived or died, whether anyone was successful at achieving their ends.

But, and there is almost always a but, I still found myself enjoying the ride. It was not nearly as much as I had hoped, but there was a certain giddy joy that could be gleaned from the cartoonish characters, the outlandish situations, and the infectious energy that pervades the camera moves and editing. It is a comic book/video game come to life. This could, at least on the surface, looks like it could be molded into an effective first person shooter. Come to think of it, perhaps that is what this is, an ode to the multi-player first person shooters of recent years. The target is Buddy Israel, and the players can either take the form of FBI agents out to protect him, or they can inhabit the plethora of hitman characters set on eliminating the sleazy performer.

The plot has a hit put out on Buddy "Aces" Israel. He is currently in a battle with Primo Sparrazzo for control of the Nevada crime scene. When it comes out that Aces is going to testify for the Federal Government, essential shutting down the family, Primo puts out a hit on the sleazy Vegas showman. One million dollars goes to whoever brings him Buddy's heart, an odd contact to be sure, and one that is more than meets the eye. This attracts all manner of colorful characters to the Lake Tahoe penthouse that is currently serving as house and home to our titular character. Buddy is holed up, sealed off from the rest of the world, surrounded by Motley Crue levels of decadance, lines of coke and crumpled bodies of used hookers litter his living space. It is this hotel that serves as host for the likes of a master of disguise, an expert in torture, a trio of tattooed punks, and a lesbian hit-couple.

The movie opens with a well edited, although hard to grasp at first, string of characters talking about what is going on. It is was an effective way of getting all of the players on screen quickly, while also serving to explain the plot ast a high level. This gives way to everyone getting together for the explosive action through the middle third of the film, leading to a talky and roundabout confusing ending.

Joe Carnahan took a decidedly different turn this time out, after his cop thriller, Narc with Jason Patric and the returning Ray Liotta. He assembled quite an array of talent to populate his colorful world. The cast includes Jeremy Piven as Aces, Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds as the FBI agents, Andy Garcia as their boss, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, and Martin Henderson as bail bondsmen, Alicia Keys (in her tough and sexy screen debut) and Taraji P. Hensen as a pair of hitmen, not to mention Common, Jason Bateman, Nestor Carbonell, and a nearly unrecognizable bit from Matthew Fox.

Bottomline. I am going to have to say that I liked this film. My issues with the characters and the plot histrionics aside, this film delivered a dosing of wild action with colorful characters, and they seemed to be having fun while they were at it. Sure, there seemed to be a lot of Tarantino channeling in effect, it was still a fun time in the theater.



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