Almost everything about Universal Pictures’ Smokin’ Aces screams unoriginal, contrived, and convoluted. And yet, for all its shortcomings, the film expertly pulls off what it sets out to do: entertain at all costs, with as much action, tension, and violence as possible sandwiched between the opening and closing credits.
The title of the film refers to Buddy “Aces” Israel (the always impressive Jeremy Piven, TV’s Entourage) and the fact that a whole slew of people want to kill him to collect on a $1 million hit put out on him by mob boss Primo Sparazza. Israel is a larger-than-life Vegas entertainer who actually took the extra step that Frank Sinatra supposedly never did and got into bed with the Mafia, so to speak. In an effort to save his own hide, Buddy’s decided to turn state’s evidence and spill the beans on his mob cohorts to the FBI, a proposition that could spell the end of the Mafia. Holed up in a penthouse suite in Lake Tahoe and unaware that the race is on to end his life, Buddy is in constant contact with his lawyer in a feverish attempt to broker a deal with the feds. Two federal agents, played by Ray Liotta (Narc) and Ryan Reynolds (National Lampoon’s Van Wilder), race against hired assassins, bail bondsmen, and even a trio of neo-Nazi redneck murderers to get to Buddy first, eventually leading up to the inevitable gun ‘attle royale’ that’s totally reminiscent of the hotel room scene in the Tarantino-penned True Romance, only with more violence and a particularly memorable scene involving a chainsaw.
Smokin’ Aces‘ North American box office take was roughly double its modest production budget of $17 million. With all the crowd-pleasing action, one can easily wonder why it didn’t make more money, although the film’s deserved R rating probably contributed to the middling returns.
Perhaps in an effort to distance his film from the dime-a-dozen crime thrillers inundating theaters and video store shelves, writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) tries to flesh out the plot with a back story and a surprise twist that, because of the film’s frenetic pace, only serves to confuse the casual action film fan. There’s no doubt that Carnahan is an intelligent and talented filmmaker, but one can’t help but get the feeling that Smokin’ Aces is his attempt at commercial and mainstream success and that, with all his camera tricks and plot devices, he’s trying to show everything he’s capable of in a short (but somehow overly long) hour and forty-nine minutes, a stark contrast to Narc, his dark and brooding atmospheric character study from 2002.
What ultimately redeems Smokin’ Aces and makes it a highly enjoyable action film are the performances of the large ensemble cast, particularly Piven, whose Buddy Israel is an amped-up and even more desperate version of Ari Gold, the Hollywood agent he plays on TV. Truth be told, there isn’t one uninteresting character in the film (except maybe Andy Garcia’s FBI boss…when will Garcia realize that Mushmouth is a Fat Albert character and not an acting method to aspire to?), and that’s a big compliment to the actors portraying them. The cast is a veritable who’s who of Hollywood’s B-list and lower A-list celebrities, including Ben Affleck (in a small but scenery-chewing role), Garcia, Reynolds, Liotta, Peter Berg, Taragi Henson, Nestor Carbonell, and Matthew Fox. Soul songstress Alicia Keys and rapper Common don’t look out of place in their feature film debuts, playing pivotal roles. Jason Bateman, in the role of the sleazy lawyer who hires Affleck’s bail bondsman to get to Buddy before the feds or any assassins can, almost steals the show. The character, and Bateman’s portrayal, are so perfect that Carnahan should focus his next script on Rupert ‘Rip’ Reed. He’d be an excellent focal point in a weekly quirky hour-long “dramedy” series.
The scenery of Lake Tahoe and the vivid colors of Nevada’s casino culture transfer beautifully to the screen, and the sound is excellent. Bullet casings hitting the floor have never sounded so good.
The bountiful bevy of special features include an alternate ending that’s more gratifying but not as gut-wrenching; 18 minutes of deleted and extended scenes and some fun outtakes; short interviews with some of the cast members about their characters; a featurette on the stunts and effects used in the film’s most violent scenes; and a featurette on writer-director Joe Carnahan, whose genial demeanor makes it easy to see why he is regarded as an actors’ director. I was transfixed by this particualr portion of the disc, as I couldn’t get over how much Carnahan looks like me, the poor bugger.
Of the two feature commentary tracks, the one with Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen is the more interesting one. They go into detail about the technical aspects and problems that arise when shooting a film with such a large cast and non-stop action sequences. The other feature commentary is with Carnahan and actors Common and Christopher Holley (both played bodyguards to Piven’s Buddy), as well as with Zach Cumer, who has a small role as an agressive kid who torments an ailing character in the film.
Smokin’ Aces is what some people might call the quintessential guys’ movie: violence, foul language, nudity, and drug use. I hate categorizing films as guy movies or chick flicks, though; a film should be judged of its own merit, not whther it measures up to asilly stereotype. Having said that, by no means is Smokin’ Aces high art, but it’s a thrill-a-minute action movie that doesn’t disappoint in its goal to entertain the viewer. So pop some popcorn, grab a couple of brewskis and crank up the volume…you’re in for a wild ride.