After the gritty and gripping cop thriller Narc in 2002, writer/director Joe Carnahan was looking like hot property. He was signed onto Mission: Impossible 3, but left due to creative differences with star Tom Cruise to make Smokin’ Aces with full control. I, for one, was relieved he was holding true to his beliefs…until I saw this disjointed and rather self-indulgent sub-Tarantino tosh. The setup surrounds Las Vegas magician-turned-mobster-turned snitch Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) who is to be taken into protective custody by FBI agents Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) and Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds). But a colourful bunch of assassins, both individuals and teams, are also on their way to collect the bounty on Buddy’s head, with predictably violent results.
…I began to get a sense that Carnahan may be overreaching for the cool factor.
On paper, I had such high hopes for Smokin’ Aces. What with the director’s supposed pedigree and a cast that also includes Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia and Alicia Keys, you would hope they could pull off a flashy crime thriller with some action packed shootouts backed up by fast talking mobsters, tough talking cops and mad talking assassins. That’s what the trailer promised, anyway. It starts off slickly enough, introducing Buddy’s situation by switching between Affleck’s group of assassins in a bar and Carruthers with Messner in a van on a stake out all talking about him with cuts to his Vegas stage show. It seems we are entering Quentin Tarantino territory of smart dialogue. However, as each character is introduced with a still shot and their name stamped across the screen like a mid-80s television series, I began to get a sense that Carnahan may be overreaching for the cool factor. After a dreary half hour or so, as the assassins get closer to the hotel Buddy is staying in, I started to wonder who I was supposed to be rooting for. The cops were miles away, Buddy and his goons had been made out to be utter imbeciles and there was not one assassin even remotely likeable. As people start to get shot you’ll hardly care, and that is before the full-on hotel penthouse assault. Where are the subtle characterisations of Narc and contentious moments of doubt for the integrity of the central characters? It’s all too one-dimensional!
Yes, there is some coolness to the violence in terms of visual flair once they all meet for the showdown, but Tarantino knows how to make it an extension of the characters and not just for kicks: here they just seem to be shooting for the hell of it. By the time the dust has settled and the rounds expelled, the last thing I wanted to hear was a contrived twist that thinks it has all the complexities of The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995) but in fact has such simple flaws in its theory that it unravels Smokin’ Aces like every jumper I ever got from my aunt for Christmas. The last scene is simply bewildering and left me thinking “Oh, what a waste of time and effort.” Carnahan should have stuck with M:I-III, and I never thought I would be writing that.