By Brian Rentschler
Short version: Strong acting performances and skillful direction make up for the deficiencies in the script.
Every now and then, I have to put myself in a filmmaker's shoes. After all, if I had poured my soul into writing and directing a movie, it would matter to me what people thought of it. The release of my movie would be an invitation for critics to play Monday-morning quarterbacks and start finding flaws in my labor of love, whether perceived or real. Of course, after a while, I would have to develop a very thick skin and essentially ignore those critics if I wanted to avoid going insane. So why did such an esoteric thought enter my head after seeing Smokin' Aces? It was mainly because after seeing it, I wanted to pick it apart and really dissect what the filmmakers did wrong. That doesn't mean I hated the movie; my overall rating ended up being mildly positive. However, I found myself frustrated by some deficiencies in the script, which I'll discuss later.
Here's something to file under the "Duh" category: This is primarily a "guy movie." Blood, guts, violence, profanity, nudity... all the necessary elements are there. If your girlfriend (or wife as the case may be) goes with you to this movie, she's a real trooper. If she actually likes the movie, she might just be a keeper.
After the movie ended and the credits started rolling, I had two main thoughts going through my head. (That's rare for me, but it happens.) First, I had kind of an icky, scummy feeling from seeing it; I'll explain more about that later. Second, I was really impressed with the acting performances. Typically when there's a long, eclectic list of names in the cast, you're bound to get at least one sub-par performance, but not here. Director/writer Joe Carnahan does a good job of casting the right people in the right roles, as well as eliciting some strong performances from them. The real standouts in this movie are Jeremy Piven and Ryan Reynolds. Singer Alicia Keys and rap artist Common also give surprisingly strong performances, considering the fact that neither of them has done very much acting.
Despite a long list of characters, the main story is not too complicated. A Vegas entertainer named Buddy "Aces" Israel (played by Jeremy Piven) has developed strong ties to an organized crime family led by Primo Sparazza (played by Joseph Ruskin). The problem is, Aces has let mob life go to his head, and now he's interfering with the family business, causing rifts within the family and making the wrong people mad at him. The low point is when Aces is arrested and skips bail shortly afterwards. He hides out in Lake Tahoe and has his manager (played by Curtis Armstrong) negotiate a deal with the FBI. Aces agrees to testify against Sparazza and his crew, which will finally allow the FBI to build a strong case against the last known vestige of organized crime in America. Of course, once Sparazza's crew hears about this, they're very unhappy. Sparazza is very sick and near death, so on his behalf, his crew orders a hit on Aces. They put a price of $1 million on his head, and they also hire several different assassins (individuals and teams), turning it into a competition of sorts.
It turns out that Aces is about as inconspicuous as a nuclear bomb. With large groups of scantily-clad women and massive teams of security going up to a hotel floor that's supposedly under construction, it doesn't take long for the FBI, the assassins and several bail bondsmen to figure out where he's hiding. The FBI has a strong incentive to keep Aces alive; without his testimony, they have no case against Sparazza and his crew. The assassins have a strong incentive to give Aces a "dirt nap," since the first individual or team to kill Aces gets the $1 million, and there's no prize for finishing second. With all these different people converging on the same location at roughly the same time, a bloodbath would seem to be inevitable.
I think I'm about to set a Guinness record for the most parentheses in a single paragraph, but here goes: The deputy director of the FBI (played by Andy Garcia) assigns a protective detail for Aces consisting of two agents: Carruthers (played by Ray Liotta) and Messner (played by Ryan Reynolds). Obviously, the FBI wants Aces taken alive; so do the three bail bondsmen chasing after him (played by Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson). Aces also has a small crew who presumably wants him alive — Ivy (played by Common), Beanie (played by Christopher Holley) and Hugo (played by Joel Edgerton). The assassins who have been sent to kill Aces are either nasty, ruthless or both. There are the Tremor brothers (played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling), redneck neo-Nazi punks who are short on brains but have plenty of equipment and firepower. There is Pasquale Acosta (played by Nestor Carbonell), known for his creative torturing methods and for the fact that he once chewed off the tips of his fingers to avoid being fingerprinted. There is Lazlo Soot (played by Tommy Flanagan), known for his expertise with rubber masks, enabling him to look like anyone. And last but not least, there is the team of Georgia (played by Alicia Keys) and Sharice (played by Taraji Henson), whose gender gives them an edge over the predominantly male competition.
Of course no movie is perfect, so I'll point out some of the flaws that I observed. First and foremost, the guy around whom the story essentially revolves, Buddy "Aces" Israel, is a self-absorbed jerk who mistreats everyone around him. I thought Jeremy Piven did a great job playing him, but as a character, Buddy's behavior makes it difficult for the audience to like him. Indeed, at several points during the movie, I wondered why no one in his entourage had taken him out yet. Maybe they want to; we don't really get to know them very well. That brings me to another flaw in the movie — there are too many characters. The large, eclectic cast is impressive, but since the movie is only 108 minutes long, there's not enough time for us to get to know any of them very well. Most of the characters receive at least a decent amount of screen time, but I would have preferred fewer characters, or at least more emphasis on just a few of the characters. Another flaw that made it hard for me to enjoy the movie was the grisly, morbid nature of some of the violence. Even the worst villains have at least a few redeeming qualities to them, but some of the characters in this movie come across as just pure evil. Those characters gave me an icky, scummy feeling that stayed with me even after the movie was over. And last but not least is a minor nitpick concerning the character of Lazlo Soot. What's up with the rubber mask thing? Hasn't that dead horse been beaten enough? Maybe I'm not completely up to speed on rubber mask technology, but I have a hard time believing it's that simple to impersonate people. What about voice, height, weight, build, mannerisms? Okay, enough about that...
During the movie, I counted two major plot twists, and one minor one. The first one was quite obvious, at least to me; I saw it coming a mile away. The other two were not so obvious, but after they were revealed, I felt cheated as a viewer. I have to admit, though, the plot twists helped the ending make more sense than it otherwise would have.
So, is the movie worth seeing? That depends on what you're expecting. It doesn't deliver some deep, philosophical message, but it's not exactly mindless entertainment either. There's plenty of violence and bloodshed, but there's also some really good acting. As a director, Joe Carnahan did an impressive job with this movie. As a writer, he delivered a script that I would have preferred to see punched up a bit. Overall, Smokin' Aces hits more than it misses, which is why I'm giving it a mildly positive rating.