Sunday, May 27, 2018

"Smokin' Aces": review

Director Joe Carnahan's "Smokin' Aces" came out in 2007, but I only just watched it tonight. The movie features an ensemble cast filled with Hollywood veterans as well as with younger stars who have since moved on to bigger and better. Among others, we see Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Ryan Reynolds, Common, Alicia Keys, Taraji Henson, Chris Pine, Jason Bateman, Nestor Carbonell, Peter Berg, and Jeremy Piven as the eponymous card magician Buddy "Aces" Israel himself. For Common and Keys, this movie was their debut appearance on the big screen (both started out as singers; Common was in "John Wick: Chapter 2").

"Smokin' Aces" wasn't very well liked by the critics when it came out (30% on Rotten Tomatoes; 45% on Metacritic), but I thought it was pretty good. The film came off as a sort of homage to the directorial stylings of Guy Ritchie, whose influence on this work is fairly obvious: the breakneck speed of the plot, the almost ADHD rapidfire editing, the over-the-top characters and action sequences, and the madcap notion that a bunch of professional assassins might all converge on one gangster-wannabe magician holed up in a Lake Tahoe hotel suite—these are all the elements of a Guy Ritchie film like "Snatch."

The basic plot in a nutshell: Buddy "Aces" Israel (Piven) is a Las Vegas entertainer with mob connections who falls out of favor with a don named Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). Sparazza is dying, but from what the FBI agents spying on his residence can pick up, the old gangster wants Israel killed and his heart removed as some sort of trophy. Israel rolled over to the FBI a while ago, and he is in the process of cutting a deal: crucial testimony to take down La Cosa Nostra in exchange for immunity and entry into the Witness Protection program. Sparazza, however, is willing to pay a million dollars to have Israel killed and his heart taken out, and when word of this leaks out to the hitman community, several teams of professional killers converge on Lake Tahoe, each with a plan for infiltrating the hotel, making it up to Israel's penthouse suite, and killing Israel. Caught in the middle of all this are FBI agents Messner (Reynolds) and Carruthers (Liotta), and when a major plot twist occurs around halfway through the movie, the two agents are left out of the loop, and quite a few unnecessary deaths occur. We don't find out the full implications of the plot twist until the very end of the story, but it's enough of a shocker to prompt one of the two federal agents to take radical action—a deed extreme enough to end his career.

"Smokin' Aces" has plenty of positives. I enjoyed the film's direction, overall: the pacing seemed apropos, given the comically violent nature of the story, which was striving for Guy Ritchie/Quentin Tarantino heights. The film also handled several converging plot lines quite well; I tip my hat to the screenwriters for that. The cast members were all on point; some characters were there as comic relief while others were meant to be varying degrees of dead-serious or downright scary. Chris Pine, Jason Bateman, and Joel Edgerton all stand out as hilarious in their various roles; Pine in particular is a hoot paying a character who is a far cry from Captain James T. Kirk.

But the film isn't perfect. Foremost in my mind is Andy Garcia's mega-weird accent throughout the film. Garcia plays Agent Locke, a higher-up in the FBI who is coordinating Buddy Israel's transition to Witness Protection when he's not withholding crucial information from Carruthers and Messner. Another problem is that the script for director Carnahan's movie generally lacks the sort of barbed wit you'd expect from a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino production. While the story makes up for the lack of wit through the intensity of its action, the viewer is left feeling that something is lacking. This isn't true for Chris Pine's scenes, though: Pine's dialogue, and the way he delivers it, is funny and spot-on.

All in all, I'm going to stand against the tide of the critics and declare "Smokin' Aces" worthy of at least one viewing. The story's plot might have some logical holes in it, and the verbal wit may be a bit lacking, but the film is tightly paced and edited, and the overall direction moves the story along with urgency and emotional intensity. A tad more character development might have helped, but in a film with this many colorful characters, that's not an easy thing to realize. Watch the film for its action, for an interesting plot twist that didn't telegraph itself, and for Chris Pine's stand-out performance as one of the goofier assassins.

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