WFTB Score: 3/20
The plot: A $1 million price is put on the head, and the heart, of Las Vegas showman Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel, magician, asshole and key to bringing down the last of the great Mafia bosses. FBI agents Carruthers and Messner are assigned to protect the witness, but with an array of hitmen – and women – prepared to carry out the contract, they are heavily outnumbered.
Like Tom and Jerry, the mob and the FBI have been long-standing Hollywood staples, their never-ending battles fuelling decades of cinematic excitement. Sometimes the resulting movie is brilliant, for example The Untouchables or Donnie Brasco (I wouldn’t presume to comment on the classics of the more distant past); sometimes the result is pure dross, and it should already be pretty clear into which category Smokin’ Aces falls.
The plot of the film is simple, on the surface at least. Primo Sparazza is the last of the mafia bosses, but having taken in magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) as one of his own, he is distraught that Buddy – holed up with bodyguards, an idiotic East European assistant, and assorted escorts in a Penthouse suite of a Lake Tahoe hotel – has turned State’s Witness and is going to spill the beans to the authorities, hence the contract for a million dollars.
FBI agents Messner and Carruthers (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) get first wind of the planned hit, but they are only a whisker ahead of a gaggle of interested parties, including: a Latin killer with a nickname that means ‘The Plague’; a shadowy torturer with a penchant for Mission:Impossible-style face masks; a trio of homicidal, punkish thugs called the Tremors; a pair of lady assassins (Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson) who plan to use Buddy’s weakness for prostitutes as bait; and bail bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), whose idea of sneaking into the hotel with his buddies in security gear is violently, er, ‘borrowed’ by the Tremors.
As luck would have it, all these groups arrive at or near the heavily-guarded suite at around the same time, and in the orgy of blood-letting that follows, details emerge that have Agent Messner asking questions of his boss Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia), especially about the identity of Sparazza and the murder of an Agent Heller a long time ago.
In the hands of Quentin Tarantino, Smokin’ Aces might have turned out messy and indulgent, but would no doubt have featured a number of memorable characters, a script peppered with quotable lines and a half-decent soundtrack. In the hands of John Woo, the gunplay would have been orchestrated, the film building remorselessly to a heart-pumping climax. In the hands of Joe Carnahan, we have one of the flattest, limpest flops that I have seen in a long time.
The first eighteen minutes is pure exposition, spoken either by Affleck or Garcia, showing the FBI and the assassins at work whilst their names are flashed up on the screen. Then, each in their idiosyncratic way – the Tremors yahooing, the black ladies bitchin’ ‘n’ swearin’ – the parties arrive and proceed to shoot, slash and snipe their way towards their target, while Israel, a bloated, angry loser, struts about his penthouse, throwing cards about.
The violence is competently executed, for want of a better word, but I have two problems with it: firstly, it is preposterously overblown, so two of the protagonists (one FBI, one not) can shoot each other at least a dozen times within the confines of a lift and not receive an instantly mortal wound – meanwhile, Alicia Keys’ accomplice can fire deadly .50 calibre shots from a completely different hotel.
Secondly, and much more importantly, the film forgets to make any of the characters in the least bit likeable, so all of the violence takes place in a complete vacuum, the viewer not caring in the slightest who lives or dies. We are obviously meant to root for Keys (because she’s pretty) and Reynolds (because he, er, wears white, and has a beard?), but are given no tangible reason why we should. Messner is undoubtedly the most ‘normal’ character, but the film has the cheek to sentimentalize his memories of people getting shot – sequences that the film revelled in at the time they happened – and the film can’t have it both ways. Naturally the film plays out with a shocking reveal (insultingly, like the name captions, playing back pieces of significant dialogue so the inattentive can go ‘Aah!’), but this barely makes any sense and certainly doesn’t give the film a satisfying close. At least these scenes do not feature any misguided attempts at outlandish humour, unlike the pathetic episodes where the sole survivor of Affleck’s band is confronted by an over-active, nun-chuck wielding child (watch Napoleon Dynamite much, Joe?)
I am stunned that this project was ever given the green light, and as always a bad film with a decent budget always seems far worse a waste than one which is merely bad and cheap. Smokin’ Aces throws just about everything into the bucket in an attempt to come up with a hip, slick, gangster movie; the charmless, unfunny and uninvolving film Carnahan delivers is the cinematic equivalent of a bucket of sick.