On the sticky surface, Joe Carnahan's "Smokin' Aces" definitely has the stink of "been there, done that" all over it. It's a manic visual exercise, but from a thoroughly intelligent filmmaker who has more on his mind than just a hack fireworks display meant to beguile 15 year-olds with too much free time (think garbage like "Running Scared" or anything from Tony Scott recently).
Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a Las Vegas magician with a very dangerous taste for trouble. Mixed up with the mob, Buddy is ready to squawk to the feds to save his own behind, leaving the criminal underworld very interested in his assassination. When enemies post a million dollar reward for Buddy's heart, the offer captures the attention of contract killers (Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson), entourages (Common), coked-up lawyers (Jason Bateman), bail bondsmen (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Martin Henderson), insane Neo-Nazis (led by Chris Pine), and federal agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) who don't know who to protect and who to kill.
Universal's marketing positions "Aces" as a mindless, violent free-for-all, tossing a bunch of bad influences into a blender and slopping the results onto the screen. While Carnahan certainly reaches those heights of excess with some frenetic camerawork and passť saturated cinematographic gloss, these are fleeting moments in a film that wants nothing more than to entertain with an edge, not puncture your sinuses.
Coming five long years after his breakthrough cop thriller "Narc," I'm sure Carnahan was ready to blow his top. "Aces" has the moody feel of a director who was sick and tired of trying to push thoughtful material through the system and wanted to make something obscene just to clear his mind.
To that extent, "Aces" delivers massively on the violence scale, situating these gangsters, goofballs, and generals in a strange tug-o-war where no one knows exactly who or what is on the other end of the rope. There's loads of gunfire, limb removal, and death in the picture which, on its own, doesn't move me; we've seen this hair-trigger mayhem in cinemas so much over the past few years, amped up to a degree where it ceases to be a movie and transforms into optical Red Bull. Where "Aces" won me over was in its complexity. And that's also where it pissed me off.
Carnahan, fearing the high-calorie death spasms might come back to haunt him at the end of the film, has written a highly intricate story behind Buddy and the reasons so many people want a piece of him. At least I think it's complex; the script is chock full of exposition from so many different characters, it'll take a few viewings to get a good look at what is actually being served up. Simply put: it's more effort than others would place in their splatter-a-thon, and the director shows patience rolling it out, getting the audience used to the personalities, while also keeping us on our toes while big name stars are killed without warning and allegiances are in constant rotation.
Paying this labyrinth off in the end puts Carnahan in a corner. Once "Aces" hits a throbbing peak of bullets and spurting fountains of blood, there's little left to be said. Unfortunately, the movie disagrees. Once the fever pitch is nailed, "Aces" continues on for what seems like an eternity, providing such a detailed pass at closure that it rips the movie right off the rails. How Carnahan ever thought anyone would care to learn Buddy's secrets after watching a casino hotel massacre, complete with chainsaws and more spent bullets than an NRA picnic, is baffling. "Aces" has clearly peaked, but the film continues to explain itself, slowly draining the excitement right out of the festivities.
Thankfully, with Ryan Reynolds's help, Carnahan ends "Aces" on a beautiful instant of disgust and resignation, earning back the trust of the audience at the exact last moment. Corralling back the film is surprising, but so is "Smokin' Aces" in its entirety. Just when the frightfully overspent genre of excess has reached a point of no return, here's a filmmaker willing to put a little more effort into his kaleidoscope of hurt.
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