Never trust a film that hypes itself as Smokin'. Writer/director Joe Carnahan managed to parley the modest success of Narc (2002) into making the turbo-charged hit man flick Smokin’ Aces, but something went wrong once he assembled his talented cast with their many guns around a hotel in Lake Tahoe. For one thing, there are simply too many hit men and women to go around, and the film takes an unbelievable 45 minutes to introduce the viewer to them. Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), voted five times Las Vegas’s premier entertainer/illusionist/stand-up comic, has dabbled in the gangster world by engaging in an armed robbery and other crimes, but now he’s threatening to turn state’s evidence on the last major Mafia family run by the elderly Don Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). Sparazza has in turn placed a million dollar bounty on Buddy’s head, so every hit man and woman has congregated in Lake Tahoe to try to kill him while the FBI sends in two agents, played by Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds, to try to save him.
Made in the tradition of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, Smokin’ Aces has much sass and attitude, but also very little reason for the viewer to get engaged with all of its pyrotechnical shoot-outs. The film makes one realize that there is a reason why Elmore Leonard’s crime novels usually focus on at the most five characters. If you pile too many gangsters and cops on, they all start to blur together, and why should one care if some of them die? Some of the stand-out killers include a pair of African American hit women played by Taraji Waters and Alicia Keyes, who channel the 1970s blaxploitation style of Pam Grier. I also liked the Tremor brothers, a group of Nazi redneck anarchists with tattoos and bad teeth, who kill Ben Affleck in a drive by shooting before dumping his body in the lake.
In the midst of the bloated plot, Carnahan finds a creepy tenderness in conversations between killer and victim. For instance, one of the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine) takes a moment to have Ben Affleck’s deceased character “forgive” him by moving his mouth in such a way so that he seems to speak from heaven. Also, another hit man named Pasqual Acosta carries a retractable dagger up his sleeve that he abruptly plunges into the chest of a head of security in mid-conversation. As his lungs fill with blood, the security man slumps forward, not yet understanding what happened. As he holds him up, Pasqual calmly tells him: “Close your eyes. Think of something wonderful. Don’t make this face the last thing you ever see. Heaven may hold it against you.” Then Pasqual sweetly lowers him to the ground. In the midst of the many shoot-outs in various lobbies and elevators, these scenes are oddly affectionate as their characters lose their macho mask in the midst of dying.
With its nihilistic ballet of guns, blood, and the occasional chain saw, Smokin’ Aces may have virtues that one could appreciate more on DVD, when you can pause the action and focus on the details, but in the theater the film comes across as so macho it seems insecure. Smokin’ Aces overdoses on its own sensationalism, and too many of the actors come across as glanced-at cartoons. At one point, Taraji Waters makes an indignant speech about how the various semi-nude women who haunt Buddy Israel’s penthouse suite are no more than “meat for male consumption.” In their bloody fashion, so are most of the characters in this film.
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