Smokin' Aces

3 stars


14th January 2007

If you like to gamble, I tell you I'm your man / You win some, lose some, it's all the same to me / The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say / I don't share your greed, the only card I need is The Ace Of Spades, The Ace Of Spades

Dialogue? Who the fuck needs dialogue? The original teaser trailer for Joe Carnahan's star-filled shoot 'em up proved that action, explosions and gunshots speak much louder than words - not a syllable was spoken other than those from the songsheet of Lord Lemmy. It proved to be something of a masterstroke, because the excitement level of a billion red-blooded males instantly sky-rocketed; here was what looked to be a return to the "shoot first, quip, ask questions later" action spectacular formula that proved so popular in the 90's, when dialogue was barely audible amongst the din of cascading bullet casings and exploding cars. Although Smokin' Aces does indeed appear to be a winning hand at first, it does however fall short of a full house, thanks to an over-ambitious narrative and a few under-written roles.

Buddy "Aces" Israel (Piven) is a big-league Vegas magician turned mafia snitch, who finds out that turning your back on the Cosa Nostra comes at a price. Terminally ill mob boss Primo Sparazza has put a bounty of a million bucks on Israel's head, meaning every hitman under the sun wants to pour boxes of bullets into him. Holed up in a Vegas hotel room with his clueless entourage, a coked-up Buddy desperately tries to strike a deal with the FBI, while agents Messner (Reynolds) and Carruthers (Liotta) rush to protect him before a rogue's gallery of contract killers can get a bead on him. Amongst the usual suspects are Ben Affleck's pissed off bail bondsman and his two bickering associates; Alicia Keys' sultry assassin with her lesbian partner on sniping duty; a trio of batshit crazy hired thugs called the Tremors; a smooth-talking but sinister Spaniard with a penchant for knives; and a human chameleon with the nasty yet effective habit of stealing people's faces. These assorted misfits all descend on Buddy's hotel with the intention of treating him to a lead sandwich, with Sparazza picking up the million dollar tab.

If you were expecting a Midnight Run-style chase movie, then you'll be in for a letdown when you realise the action all revolves around the one location, of Buddy's Vegas retreat. Not only does this feel like a criminal waste of Sin City's most glamorous locations, it means the character of Buddy is never really placed under much duress; the floor of his suite covered in wasted hookers and fat lines of coke, Aces rarely feels like he's in danger of being smoked. Although never written to be a sympathetic character - his introduction labels him a "superstar", an "asshole" and a "douchebag" - Buddy is bizarrely underwritten, his back story glossed over in a snappily-edited opening and his reasons for turning snitch seemingly of little concern to Carnahan and friends. Piven does well in conveying his escalating paranoia but he's given very little screen time in relation to his would-be assassins with which to work. A little trimming of the fat in this regard would have worked wonder in the director's favour: giving Aces a little more reason for living would make his impending status as a cheese grater all the more exciting.

Carnahan's talents as a director are not to be sniffed at. His last effort, Narc in 2002, was a massively underrated cop drama (also starring Liotta), and he's carried the same brutality and grittiness onto his new project, fusing it with some Tarantino-esque smarts and some Rodriguez-style gunplay. Once the hotel Nomad is besieged by hitmen (and women), the shit really hits the fan and Carnahan lets fly with scene after scene of unstoppable carnage; round after round of sniper ammo pepper some pinned Feds on an upper floor; hotel staff get sliced and diced; chainsaw meets skin and bone; an innocuous lift encounter turns into a vicious gunfight, with Reynolds' put-upon FBI agent trying to make sense of it all while avoiding perforation. The fact that Carnahan manages to flesh out so many fantastic players in just the one movie is certainly commendable, but weaving all these character arcs together proves to be a little more than he's capable of, even with a succession of impressive tracking shots. The time frame is at odds with the action - characters seemingly stand still while someone else has their 15 minutes of fame - and the separate storylines struggle to maintain chronological coherence as Buddy's fate unfolds. It's a shame, because time spent with most, if not all, of the assorted cast is a pleasure - there are few, even Affleck, who fail to impress.

Even in the moments away from the death and destruction, there are deposits of comedy gold to be mined - Jason Bateman makes a brief cameo as the joker of the pack, the psycho kid pumped full of Ritalin that faces up to one of Buddy's bounty hunters is priceless, and the Tremors are delightfully daft, despite being a straight-up riff on The Big Lebowski's nihilist kidnappers. In keeping the tone relatively light and bouncy, it makes proceedings all the more enjoyable; you won't mind if the odd line of dialogue is lost in some lightning-fast exchanges (bring a ghetto friend to translate for Alicia Keys' scenes) or if characters come and go in a flash, because it's all so utterly funky and fresh. A little style over substance never hurt anyone, and that's exactly what the director seems to be aspiring to here. It's odd then, that such a downbeat ending rounds things off; a relatively trivial plotline is pushed to the fore in perhaps a twist too far.

It's not the new Pulp Fiction as many were hoping - okay, maybe that was just me - but it is nonetheless a guilt-free return to the kind of stylish action thrillers that rely on strong characters just as much as they do carnage. Some might label it a flawed, sprawling mess, and their accusations wouldn't be completely groundless, but relax - life's too short to miss out on flicks with this much enthusiasm, guile and spunk. Flashy and excessively violent it may be, but that's the way I like it baby, I don't wanna live forever.

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