Smokin’ Aces

cast: Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, and Alicia Keys

writer and director: Joe Carnahan

109 minutes (R) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary

Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a stage magician associated with mobsters. He’s making a deal with the FBI and planning to testify against a dying mafia boss. When the gangster puts a $1 million price on Buddy’s head (oh, and he wants the illusionist’s heart cut out, too), streetwise contract killers, an international hitman, slash ‘n’ burn crazies, and bounty hunters, all converge on Buddy Aces’ federally sanctioned hiding place in Las Vegas, hoping to claim the escrowed cash…

This is a comedy action thriller packed with high-energy shooting and fast-cutting, pushed and pulled into a 109-minute runtime that seems far longer than it actually is.

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It works from a routine and hackneyed script by a director (the maker of Narc, 2002) who uses a mishmash of gangster jargon, TV detective patois, and gutter-speak dialogue, that’s ground beneath the heels of its unmotivated stars (the likes of Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta are rarely this bland) who deliver something much less than bread-and butter quality performances. Smokin’ Aces is a movie aimed at fans of Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino. Said fans might actually believe True Romance really is the greatest film ever made. Well, don’t scoff; just pity them.

The different assassins have designer quirks and comicbook type modus operandi, raging from surgical maestro and master of disguise to chainsaw-wielding redneck psycho brothers. Making her feature debut as the sexy Georgia, singer Alicia Keys was probably supposed to bring a touch of sassy attitude to the film’s overall mode of juvenile macho posturing but, frankly, she’s only another Nikita wannabe at best, and her lack of screen presence throughout scenes designed to establish character makes her casting here seem like a last minute substitute choice when the army of producers couldn’t recruit a genuine actress. Even her action scenes are vapid and colourless when they need to be pseudo-erotically stimulating to keep fans of girls-with-guns movies happy.

Joe Carnahan claims he’s made an “intellectual drive-in” movie. However, it’s only mindful of degenerate sleaze, with relentless changes of tone, pacing, and style in a series of distracting efforts to subvert comedy-drama and action-thriller formulas. While absurdly twisted narrative mechanics and the intentionally slapdash cluster of subgenre references undermine the film’s brief moments of pulpy existentialism (which tend to drag on interminably), the basic plot is so ridiculously far-fetched it feels like it’s imported from another world (the planet Dyslexia?), badly translated by a malfunctioning C-3PO unit from ancient Klingon farce.

Vulgar and trashy are critically descriptive words to savour when applied to cheap and cheerful flicks by cinema’s best grindhouse recycling practitioners, but Smokin’ Aces is merely a shallow patchwork of familiar cops-and-killers tropes. Ultimately, it’s a worthless application of derivative shoot ’em up pyrotechnics, and influences from The Usual Suspects to 3000 Miles To Graceland. After such a long build-up, the climax’s ballistic and explosive demolition of an entire top floor of the fictional Nomad hotel should have been worth the wait, but Carnahan, his set-designers and his stunts team fail to create a convincing arena for the action or maintain integrity in the editing process. We don’t know who’s shooting at who, or even why, and the various gruesome deaths happen mostly off-camera, so it’s regrettably unclear who killed who, or how. Long before the end, I stopped caring, anyway.

DVD extras: alternate ending, deleted scenes and outtakes add up to 18 minutes of bonus footage. There are also sketchy character profiles in Line-up, some director’s video-diary stuff in Big Gun, a behind-the-scenes featurette about stunts & effects, plus not one but two commentary tracks by an ebullient yet vacuous Carnahan with assorted crew.