This review was written for the theatrical release of "Smokin' Aces."
Joe Carnahan likes to make macho Guns-and-Violence movies -- "Narc" and "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane" -- but in his third feature as a writer-director, he finds himself at a crossroads: He either will find an original voice or be content to ape yesterday's trends in the G&V genre. If he pursues the avenue of "Smokin' Aces," he is, discouragingly, headed down the latter path. While the film bristles with cinematic verve, it also is as second-hand as an antique store. The elements that come together here are far too easily identified: Huge, bloody chunks of Quentin Tarantino, the slickster moves of "Ocean's Eleven" and "Ocean's Twelve," the double-barreled visual assault of early Guy Ritchie and the plot twists of "The Usual Suspects."
In these interlocking tales of cops, hit men and mobsters, Universal definitely has a playable film for males 25 and under. But looking past the grosses, which could potentially go as high as $40 million, Carnahan's career seems to be moving away from his early promise. His first two films played Sundance; this one is strictly Salt Lake City.
The whole thing comes down to one gag: In the tradition of Nevada poker tournaments, "Aces" brings a collection of characters to a casino hotel in Lake Tahoe. However, these are not card sharks but rather a hit parade of outrageous assassins working as teams or solo acts. Seems a mob boss (Joseph Ruskin) has taken out a $1 million contract on sleazy illusionist Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven). Aces is ensconced in a penthouse at the Nomad Casino while his manager negotiates a deal with the FBI deputy director (Andy Garcia) to turn state's evidence against the mob.
So Carnahan gives us a rogue's gallery of sociopaths in competition for that cool $1 million: neo-Nazi brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Serling), who display a fondness for chain saws; two feminist hit ladies (Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson), righteous sisters in the struggle against male dominance of action flicks; a master of disguises (Tommy Flanagan); a master of exquisitely painful deaths (Nestor Carbonell); and an out-of-his-element bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) and two pals (Peter Berg, Martin Henderson). Ace's only protection comes from a couple of stalwart FBI agents (Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta) and a distracted hotel security staff.
Like all good multicharacter operas of mayhem, everyone gets an aria to demonstrate his bloody abilities. While these episodes lack the wit and intelligence of Tarantino -- well, Carnahan begs for the comparison to be made -- they do not lack visceral impact. On the positive side, these showdowns feature mostly superior stunt work rather than special effects.
One question hovers over the carnage, though: Whom the hell are we supposed to root for? The closest the movie comes to sympathetic assassins are its hit ladies, yet the payoff to their subplot is the weakest of the bunch.
A hot soundtrack and percussive editing drive the picture, which cinematographer Mauro Fiore shoots in saturated colors. Mary Zophres is allowed to go crazy with her costumes for her ghetto-fabluous hit babes, neo-Nazi fast-change artists and the other hep hitmen.
Universal Pictures in association with
StudioCanal and Relativity Media presents a Working Title production
Screenwriter-director: Joe Carnahan
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Robert Graf, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Martin Whist
Music: Clint Mansell
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Robert Frazen
Jack Dupree: Ben Affleck
Stanley Locke: Andy Garcia
Georgia Sykes: Alicia Keys
Donald Carruthers: Ray Liotta
Buddy "Aces" Israel: Jeremy Piven
Richard Messner: Ryan Reynolds
"Pistol" Pete Deeks: Peter Berg
Sharice Watters: Taraji Henson
Darwin Tremor: Chris Pine
Running time -- 108 minutes
MPAA rating: R