Thursday, February 01, 2007

Smokin' Aces (2007)

If I were the sort of guy who walked out of movies, Smokin' Aces would be the sort of movie I walked out of. A shade better than unwatchable, a shade worse than unintelligible, it marks a huge step backward for its director, Joe Carnahan, who became an indie it boy for a moment with his fine film Narc. The man who made that movie is nowhere to be found in this schizophrenic mess, a film equal parts hypermasculine bluster and hyperfeminine weepiness. It's the director's third feature but it looks like a stylishly shot film school thesis.

Obstensibly, the film is about a bunch of people trying to kill and/or protect a crucial mob informant, played by Jeremy Piven. I say obstensibly because it goes a lot "deeper" than that, with half a dozen different groups all trying to kill and/or protect him, each with their own reasons. However, their motives are presented so fleetingly and there are so damn many characters, it's hard to keep track of exactly whose doing what with whom and why. So we leave it as everyone's after Jeremy Piven, who plays a scummier twist on Ari Gold if Ari suddenly thought this was his moment to win an Oscar by doing a lot of drugs and then weeping. Given how good Piven is, not just on Entourage but in any number of previous projects (even as a Costanza doppelganger in the memorable Seinfeld season four finale) it's hard to pin the blame on him.

Characters come and go freely and, for the life of me, I'm not sure why a lot of them appear. Common plays a key role in the film's final act, but did he even appear in any significant way before that? And if he did, what was his relationship to Jeremy Piven's character? And why does it make Piven's character weep so much when they talk? A second viewing is almost required for this material, but when the material is so actively unlikable, that's not exactly an enticing proposition.

The obstensible leader of this brood is Ryan Reynolds who, fine comedian that he is, still does not convince me as a badass; here he's an FBI man assigned to protect Piven along with partner (and Narc alum Ray Liotta). The massive and rather remarkable ensemble also includes Ben Affleck (as a bailbondsman with a Morgan Spurlock moustache), Alicia Keys (as a hitwoman who talks exactly like Alicia Keys), Peter Berg (as a guy who stands next to Ben Affleck), Andy Garcia (as Reynolds' boss and frequent deliverer of exposition), and Matthew Fox (as a security guard). The only memorable performance comes in one and a quarter scenes featuring a puffy Jason Bateman as a lawyer (I think?) who hires Affleck to kill Piven (maybe?).

What's most disappointing about Smokin' Aces isn't the rather mediocre content; it's the sense that Carnahan is squandering his potential. Narc worked in a well-worn genre, even a well-worn plot within that genre, but Carnahan gave it a personal stamp of style, cool and aggressive and smart. Smokin' Aces isn't just familiar material, it feels treated in a familiar way, with heavy doses in particular of Tarantino and Siegel. The telegraphed ending is perhaps the most painful Usual Suspects homage/ripoff in the dozen years since that film was released. There isn't a single thing in Smokin' Aces that feels original, except the crazy biker neo-Nazis, but that sounds a lot better on a computer screen than it looks on film. This, I suspect, was the way it went for a lot of this material.

It's funny; when I saw the trailer for Smokin' Aces I dismissed it. When I learned Carnahan was the writer and director I reassessed my previous opinion out of respect for his perceived skills. Carnahan may still possess those skills but, at least temporarily, they joined Jeremy Piven in Witness Protection.

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