If you are like me then you spend much of the first few months of the year waiting for “that” action flick; waiting for the year’s first knock-down, drag-out bullet infested homage to people who kill people. These are not Oscar contenders and they are not always well received by critics, but when you take them for what they are, then you have one hell of a ride ahead of you. Director Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces is that kind of film and more, a film that delivers pulse pounding action, an awesome cast of characters and a little substance for good measure.
Coming off of the gritty, unrelenting cop drama Narc, Carnahan has made a film in Aces that gives one half the amount of grit, but delivers twice the amount of fun. The story centers around Buddy “Aces” Israel, played by the enigmatic Jeremy Piven. Israel, a popular Las Vegas performer and mob wannabe, has just turned state’s evidence for the FBI, and holds the key to taking down what is left of the Cosa Nostra, or the mob, for those of you who have never seen The Godfather. Unwilling to let Israel go quietly, the mob puts a $1 million dollar bounty on his head and sicks every last sociopath with a gun on him. Alicia Keyes, Taraji Henson, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Tommy Flanagan all show up as contract killer out for Israel’s blood. Caught in between are a pair of FBI Agents, played by Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta.
From the first moment of the film tension is building as Carnahan introduces these characters one by one, in a well paced and creative manner. The story doesn’t linger with any one plot line, it doesn’t have time. Where a less talented director would slow down and attempt to explain some of the more over-the-top plot points (such as why some of the hitmen are gaudy clich©s or how Taraji Henson’s character got a 50 caliber gun), Carnahan pushes on and allows the characters to unfold on their own. Similar to Tarantino, Carnahan’s success is in that his story doesn’t linger, but he still gets us to buy into just about every unique character that he has to offer.
Each one of the actors adds a little flair to the film as well. Jeremy Piven is sharp as a razor as the coked out egomaniac Israel, never ceasing to amaze me with his ability to play the callous jerk with a big case of little man syndrome. Jason Bateman pops up in the middle of the film as a mid-level accountant who is paying off bail bondsman Ben Affleck to go get Israel. The scene between Bateman and Affleck’s gang of ex-cops turned thugs is the comic relief moment of the film. Well timed, intelligent and just plain wrong in many ways, Bateman exposes his character as a drunken pervert with a few odd tastes. The only disappoint is Ben Affleck, who lays on a thick East Coast-ish accent and plays right into about 5 different crime flick stereotypes. He isn’t bad, but he doesn’t shine like some of the other performers in this mammoth cast.
As the action unfolds, Carnahan and Cinematographer Mauro Fiore use some very slick camera work to put the viewer right in the middle of some of the most hellish bouts of gun fire seen since Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The action pounds away for almost the entire second half of the flick as characters begin to meet their ends, all done creatively and with undeniable visual bravado on the part of the filmmaker. It all leads up to an ending that many will see as slow, but in reality is just slower than the rest of the film. It is here where Ryan Reynolds emerges as the star of the film and ends it in poetic fashion, leaving the audience with something to think about.
On the whole, Smokin’ Aces is a hell of an action flick. It has all the substance and thought provoking engagement as a Resevior Dogs or a Pulp Fiction with the ball-busting intensity of a Lock, Stock. If you are waiting for 2007 to bring you a stylish, intense action flick then wait no longer, Smokin’ Aces is everything that you could want and then some.