Smokin’ Aces takes a lot of different elements and throws them into a bloodbath. The result is a big, stylish shoot-em-up that’s so determined to be something other than another Pulp Fiction clone that it’s probably going to put some people off. See it’s not just a violent crime movie with a sharp visual flair and an occasionally biting and funny wit. It’s also, strangely enough, got a little bit of heart.
Blame Ryan Reynolds for that. If there’s a lead in this ensemble cast film, it’s him as embattled FBI Agent Messner. Agent Messner and his partner Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are, like everyone else in the film, after a magician turned mob boss turned mob informer named Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven). Israel has pissed off the wrong people and so, he’s decided to squeal on his mob friends to the government in exchange for protection. Unfortunately for him, before the government can get him in their loving embrace, mob boss Primo puts a $1,000,000 price on his head, sending every two-bit bounty hunter and contract killer after him. The whole lot; killers, cops, ex-cops descends on Lake Tahoe and a luxury penthouse where Israel has holed up, surrounded by hotel security and a few of his own thugs.
The first twenty minutes of Smokin’ Aces is nothing but exposition, as writer/director Joe Carnhan introduces his massive group of cops and killers using snippets creatively filmed in different styles according to which group of characters he’s showing off. Normally that much setup could get boring, but Carnhan keeps it interesting and just barely avoids letting it get so complicated that he loses his audience. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the rest of the film which eventually becomes such a tangle mess of crosses, double-crosses, and plot twists that by the end following along with it becomes a pain in the ass.
Fortunately, the big twisty mob plot doesn’t matter a lot. Smokin’ Aces is built on the backs of its ensemble of characters and the movie manages to nail those. Some you’ll connect with on an emotional level others you’ll simply enjoy watching go completely mad. Ryan Reynolds’s Agent Messner is a sympathetic figure, the only real good guy in the movie, a dude just trying to do his job and get through the day with his partner. It’s Reynolds’ best work in… well… ever. Alicia Keys is terrific, as one half of a female contract killer duo with vaguely lesbian undertones. They’re the team you’re most likely to root for to make it out alive. And there’s Jeremy Piven as the heavily hunted Buddy Israel. Piven’s natural charm is on full display here. A magician, a philanderer, a guy who knows how to work people he uses card tricks the way most people use gestures and his plight is, weirdly, genuinely moving. ‘Lost’s’ Matthew Fox has as nicely touching moment with former Bat-Manuel Nestor Campbell. Touching just isn’t the sort of thing you expect from one of these crazed, violent gunplay pics, but Smokin’ Aces has a lot of that mixed in, and that makes it different. The movie’s other teams serve as varying forms of comic relief, revenge, and as bullet flinging foils.
For me, Smokin’ Aces works. Carnahan’s approach is creative and interesting, the characters are well drawn, it’s biting, it’s funny, it’s crazy, and it’s a lot of fun. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, so having a good time with it is probably going to mean getting past the endless streams of contrived story complication, but the rest of it is good enough to let you overlook all of that. Most of all, it feels fresh in a genre that’s been doing nothing but ripping off Tarantino for over a decade. If you can’t handle a lot of death or if you’re easily confused by mountains of exposition, give it a pass; but I think anyone who saw the trailer and instantly wanted to buy a ticket going to be happy enough with what Carnahan’s film delivers.