Violence is as violence does in director Joe Carnahan’s new film, “Smokin’ Aces,” the extremely violent follow-up to his directorial debut, “Narc.”
The initial impression that one gets from watching the film’s trailer is that Carnahan is attempting to revive the “pulp” genre. You remember the films that were peppered with seedy people in remote places doing very bad deeds, double-crossing one another, living by their “criminal’s code.”
Director Quentin Tarantino re-introduced the long-forgotten genre first with, “Reservoir Dogs” and later “Pulp Fiction” as well as his “Kill Bill” series. The popularity of those films spawned other pulp tales that included “2 Days in the Valley,” “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” In Carnahan’s latest, he attempts to revive the genre with mixed results.
Initially we are introduced to Las Vegas magician, Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) who, according to his backstory, has been doing his thing “Sinatra-style.” Not content to live life in entertainment, he courts and develops mob connections that place him truly in harm’s way. Hiding out in a penthouse suite in Vegas Israel intends to rat out his mob brethren, but not before dying mob boss, Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) places a $1 million bounty on his head. FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds), staking out the Don’s home, overhear his plans and are off to Sin City to protect their important witness.
Once the word gets out about the bounty, a group of seven of the most dangerous, highly trained, extremely-crazy motley crew of hitmen converge on Las Vegas (featuring Alicia Keys, Taraji Henson, Chris Pine, Nestor Carbonell, Tommy Flanagan). Israel’s crew is led by his second-in-command, Sir Ivy (Common).
Then there’s a mysterious twist that shows FBI Field Director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) in possession of some information that has to do with the plot, but what? As the hitmen close in, Ivy overhears Israel giving everyone up and preparing to run. His actions kick this ultra-violent film into overdrive. For a 30-minute period, the ensuing explicit and gratuitous bloodbath is one of the most intense ever in a major studio film.
Featuring one hitman who chews off his fingertips so that he can’t be printed, a neo-Nazi crew, an psychopath who kills his victims then makes facial mold masks of them to steal their identity.
There are several shining stars including the perfectly cast Keys, Henson and Common, as well as Reynolds and Piven. Making their film debuts, both Keys and Common make a seamlessly transition music to the big screen, at one point sharing a tender sexy scene together. One advantage that both have is that in addition to performing to large audiences, they both make countless mini-films (videos) frequently and have developed a comfort level performing in front of the camera.
This high-octane adventure is long on style but painfully short on substance. The film’s problem is that at times it appears that Carnahan is telling two separate stories, with scenes and subplots that don’t belong.
There’s a worthless subplot about a young wigga, dressed like ’07 karate kid who speaks fluid ebonics. His trailer-park grandmother finds his antics amusing, but they don’t belong in this or any other movie for that matter. By the time the plot is revealed, it will still require further examination. Ultimately, this film just never catches fire – just emits a lot of loud worthless smoke.