Smokin' Aces might be the best Tarantino riff of 1994. Since it’s actually 2007, I would say this film is about 12 years too late. The fact that it’s so much better than 2 Days in the Valley, Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead or Playing God does not excuse the fact that the film never shocks us in the way it hopes it will. We’ve seen this all before in films both better and worse and have seen directors from Guy Ritchie to Robert Rodriguez spin their wheels over this well tread ground. Writer-Director Joe Carnahan clearly wants us to get a contact high from the fumes of the trash cinema he so clearly loves. To do so, he’s tossed in not only the kitchen sink, but virtually every other appliance he could carry on his back. The result is cinematic overload: a kind of Cannonball Run for those with very short attention spans.
It's clear that Carnahan has something more ambitious in mind for Smokin' Aces. He wants to rev up the engines full throttle and then crash the car into oncoming traffic just to see what kind of mad disaster will result. He does this by constructing a screenplay that is full of name dropping, flashbacks, shaggy dog tales, and every genre possible just to see if he can simply say “Meanwhile” and throw in a scene from someone else’s script. It would be a hodge-podge were it not so infectiously enthusiastic. Carnahan seems to want to go surreal at times and in some of these moments, he actually earns some of his own credibility.
The plot is simplicity itself. Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a Sinatra-type Vegas entertainer, a magician instead of a singer, and one along the lines of a Doug Henning or Lance Burton. He, of course, has ties with the mafia and since he’s about to sing to the feds to save his neck, the mafia wants him dead and has placed a high price on his head. So high, in fact, that it’s drawn out some of the most dangerous killers in the country with the goal of collecting the million dollar bounty.
These killers are presented as various types of teams that seem to have escaped from a thousand and one genres. Ben Affleck, Martin Henderson, and Peter Berg play a trio of Boston mob type figures who approach the job like the robbery of a Brink’s armored car. They look like numbers guys and talk like they’ve been to the David Mamet school of backwards English. Alicia Keys and Taraj P. Henson are Pam Grier types who are very concerned with their professionalism. They are also, of course, lesbian lovers. They shoot better than the boys and can use their bodies for more than just action. The other teams include a near mute master of disguise who makes masks as good as the IMF team in Mission:Impossibleand a group of chainsaw wielding, nihilistic, Neo-Nazi skinheads that are clearly taking time off from making Max Mad down under. The only folks missing are Jackie Chan, Dom Deluise, and Dean Martin as the drunk priest.
Now thats the situation and the crazy ensemble. It’s already too much, but Carnahan isn’t done yet. He takes this smorgasbord and then dives into a narrative maelstrom involving a very suspicious FBI director (Andy Garcia), the dark myth of one of the original heroes of the FBI, a man who went so deep undercover it’s possible he never returned,and a spiralling melodramatic cop story featuring Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds that starts humorously and ends up in vengeance and retribution.
There’s so much drilled into the layers of the story, the whole thing seems about to turn into Jerry Garcia’s favorite movie, The Saragossa Manuscript. That film is 3 hours long and has some sections in which a flashback will yield another flashback until the point where you no longer remember which flashback you originally entered. Carnahan cannot help but hit some wild notes at times since he’s banging on keys all over. When Martin Henderson arrives, fingerless, at a trailer home and meets a fast kicking karate fighting boy and his grandmother, you’ll be checking your beverage to make sure it hasn’t been spiked. These scenes are incredible and hilarious and yet have nothing to do with anything else.
The saving grace is that nothing else has anything to do with anything else. Carnahan does not flinch from his plan and just cranks everything up to old Simpson-Bruckheimer levels of action and violence as everyone important converges upon the Penthouse suite of Buddy Israel in Lake Tahoe. Everyone stops talking and just starts shooting. The screenplay is tossed and the movie turns into grunts, screams, bullet hits and glass shattering. When your movie starts loud and just gets louder, the climax has to be deafening and Carnahan delivers.
The cast is mostly just serviceable as there is very little screen time for anyone to make an impression. The ones that do are, oddly, the ones that have mere cameos. Both Jason Bateman and Matthew Fox have only one or two scenes apiece but simply steal them outright. Jason Bateman is hard to forget in a role whose plot function is a bit elusive. But he does indeed shock with his choice of feminine underwear. Fox, from Lost, wears makeup so absurd, he’s nearly unrecognizable as the head of security at Israel’s hotel. The way he says, “Am I dying?” is simply fantastic.
This is not a good movie. It has none of the ingredients of good movies. And yet, it’s great fun at times. Mel Brooks once spoke of employing the “machine gun” method of comedy. That is, he fired a machine gun of jokes at the screen and hoped a percentage would hit the target. Carnahan has done the same with Smokin’ Aces and his percentage is not bad. But it’s kind of like eating a Big Mac. While you are eating it, you are enjoying the meal. Afterwards, however, you may question what in the hell it was you ate. Smokin’ Aces may just give you cinematic indigestion.
Universal’s DVD is packed to the gills with extras, perhaps in an attempt to match the super-sized content of the film itself. You get the “Alternate Ending” or what they call the Cowboy Ending, which is alternate and weird and just as pointless as the theatrical one, although I can see how it’s kind of cowboy.
Included are eighteen minutes of deleted scenes which let the sprawling ensemble spread even farther about, talking to each other for longer periods of time to no avail. The Extended Bar Scene featuring Affleck, Berg, and Henderson is a perfect example of a scene that needs cutting. The characters go back and forth like some bad improvisation where everyone commits only to the “F” word and agrees to not agree with anything the other actor is saying. This is the anti-thesis of dramatic writing and Carnahan must’ve been bored even shooting it.
Beyond the deleted scenes are some featurettes. A huge, 15 minutes of character profiles are provided by the actors themselves called, The Line-Up while Shoot’em Up focuses on the intense gun battles and the training the actors went through to be convincing onscreen.
The best features, however, are the 2 director commentaries and the video diary of the shoot called, The Big Gun. Both commentaries are very fun and informative, one with Carnahan and his editor Robert Franzen, and the other where he’s joined by various cast members. But it’s The Big Gun that’s most fun of all. The diary opens a window on the shoot and you can see how tired Carnahan looks on some shooting days. We actually see how grueling even a 40 day shoot can be.
Carnahan comes off as very personable in both the diary and the commentaries. He sees himself as very lucky to have been given the chance to write and direct his own films and seems to be content to please himself. He clearly states that his intention was to create a wild movie filled with everything he loves about movies. This enthusiasm is what saves the movie from self-destruction. Carnahan seems to me to be a kind of manic depressive filmmaker, swinging from the energetic tone of Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane to the dark and moody Narc and back. It would be great to see him pull it all together.