Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New on Blu: "Smokin' Aces"

Smokin’ Aces, the blood-soaked neo-Tarantino action/comedy from writer/director Joe Carnahan, is dripping with atmosphere, style, and energy—so much, in fact, that we wonder whether it’s all flash. Unfortunately, these suspicions are pretty much on the mark. There is much to recommend in Aces, but not enough to keep it from feeling like a step backwards for Carnahan, whose previous film Narc was a lean, tight, hard-boiled cop movie with an edgy visual style that was nearly undercut by its heavy heart and overwhelming sadness.

Aces, on the other hand, is all pyrotechnics—and while they’re expertly done (there’s no doubt that the guy can build an action sequence), it’s a pretty empty experience. It also suffers from about eight unnecessary characters and three too many subplots; working on a broader canvas than the intimate Narc, Carnahan simply lets his story get away from him.

This is a shame, since there are flashes of greatness in the resulting picture. Some of them are in the performances; Ryan Reynolds, for example, turns in a stand-out dramatic performance as an FBI agent (this was his first truly impressive piece of work). Ray Liotta gave one of his finest performances to date in Narc, and while his role here (as Reynolds’ partner) is nowhere near as meaty, he does get some chewy dialogue (if memory serves, he gets to use the word “donnybrook” at one point) and he and Reynolds have a nice, natural chemistry.

Alicia Keys (in her film debut) is tough and sexy as a hit woman; Taraji P. Henson is entertaining—if a little over the top—as her better half. Rapper Common gets a nice scene where he tells his boss exactly what he thinks of him. Ben Affleck turns in an entertaining (if brief) appearance as a bail bondsman, and Jason Bateman is hysterical as a shifty lawyer, giving the film some early, much-needed laughs after an overload of expositional information. And Jeremy Piven, as the object of everyone’s derision, is nearly perfect—a sweaty, bloated, coked-up mess that you can’t take your eyes off of.

The usually-reliable Andy Garcia, on the other hand, has an icy demeanor that plays a lot better than his screwy accent. And several of the rogue’s gallery of hit men could have gone by the wayside—I’m thinking particularly of the batshit crazy redneck Tremor Brothers, who are neither entertaining nor interesting (though it’s fun to look for an unrecognizable, pre-Kirk Chris Pine as one of them), as well as Martin Henderson’s left-for-dead ex-cop, whose story thread goes nowhere slowly.

However, the sequence where all of the film’s threads (good and bad) converge on Piven’s penthouse is awfully tight, and the resulting shoot-outs are well-made, exciting action cinema—blazingly cut while never unclear. In fact, Carnahan might have been smarter to have focused on the film’s action/thriller elements and dropped its illusions of comedy (and, therefore, the elements that only exist for comedic purposes).

There is a bit of a twist at the film’s conclusion, though it’s not that difficult to see coming (not that this prevents Carnahan and editor Robert Franzen from doing their best imitation of the reveal sequence in The Usual Suspects). However, once that’s out of the way, Carnahan puts Reynolds into a room, points his camera at him, and gives us a final scene that is so efficient, concise, and effective that you’re tempted to forgive the mistakes the film made in getting there. Smokin’ Aces misses more than it hits, but it sure as hell has its moments.

The three-year-old movie is clearly getting the Blu-ray treatment as a promotional tool for the new direct-to-video sequel, Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball. There are plenty of deep catalog titles that I’d rather see get the deluxe Universal Blu-ray treatment, but that’s neither here nor there; Smokin’ Aces is too damned busy and entirely too derivative, but it’s still a pretty good ride.

"Smokin' Aces" was released on Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 19th. For full audio/video and bonus features details, read this review on DVD Talk.


  1. You briefly mention Smokin Aces 2 here and just dismiss it casually. I find that absurd. I bought the DVD sometime last week and was more than pleasantly surprised by it. I think it is as much as ride, if not more so, than the first one. It was nice to see the Flanagan again. I thought he killed his role as Laslo Soot yet again.
    Furthermore, Pesce suprised the hell out of me with his directing and the special features only solidified this belief. (good insight into his ideas here --> )

  2. You're right, that is absurd. From now on, any time I write a review, I will stop it for a full review of any other film that I mention.

    Thanks for the tip. And based on the link, I'm 90% sure you're a shill anyway.