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January 28, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | January 28, 2007 |

Like a lot of filmmakers who came of cinematic age in the late 1990s, writer-director Joe Carnahan owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino, at least as far as style and ideas and colors and pretty much anything else. And since Tarantino was nothing more than a mashup of the pop culture that raised him, you can see how it could get existentially messy to try and parse the different meanings and inspirations behind Carnahan’s third and latest feature, Smokin’ Aces. I mean, is it really possible to rip off a genre master who’s nothing but the apotheosis of all ripoff artists? While Smokin’ Aces isn’t as accomplished as Carnahan’s Narc, he’s managed to maintain most of its energy while transitioning from dark cop thriller to a mix of frenetic action, stunning violence, and oddball comedy that succeeds just barely more than it fails. Despite a flimsy plot and a few twists broadcast miles in advance, the film slides by on the strength of Carnahan’s energy. Its highest aim is to be a garish, amped-up thrill-ride, and at that, it shines.

Part of the problem is the sheer scope of the story: A set of title cards sets up that Las Vegas showman and low-level mobster Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) is about to roll on the Cosa Nostra to the FBI in exchange for immunity from criminal charges, and among those to be ratted out is mob boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). But then Carnahan dives right into the extensive cast of characters, flashing their names onscreen and freezing the frame in a comfortably played-out manner that firmly entrenches the film alongside any other action-comedy in the past decade, a lá Guy Ritchie. (It is in no way surprising that both Ritchie and Carnahan each helmed installments of BMW’s “The Hire,” a series of commercials featuring Clive Owen driving very fast in a very nice car while listening to generic house music.) Carnahan shuttles between locations as he introduces FBI agents, hitmen, bail bondsmen, and lawyers, all the while building the backstory between Israel and the mob using pretty hefty exposition; it’s a lengthy sequence that stays afloat thanks to Carnahan’s solid ear for dialogue that progresses the story and the fact that, since the film is only a few minutes old, the sheen hasn’t yet begun to fade.

FBI agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are staking out Sparazza’s house when they intercept a phone call in which Sparazza’s lieutenant reveals that there’s a hit out on Israel, and they plan to nab him first and ransom him back to Sparazza. Israel has skipped bail, which means bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck) is going to get him, with the help of buddies and ex-cops Pete (Peter Berg) and Hollis (Martin Henderson), who are sponsored by the lawyer Rip Reed, played by Jason Bateman, whose supporting comedic role is easily one of the film’s highlights. But word is spreading of the bounty on Israel’s head, and soon enough a random assortment of assassins are gearing up to snatch him, including the torturer Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell); master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan); the Tremor Brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling), who look like extras from Mad Max; and the female killing team of Georgia (Alicia Keys) and Sharice (Taraji Henson). You can start to see how the story gets, well, complicated. The killers and feds converge on a Lake Tahoe resort, where Israel is holed up in the penthouse with a mountain of coke and a steady string of whores, and it doesn’t take much time before Carnahan unleashes the carnage.

That violence, when it comes, is always gripping. The flashy editing from John Gilroy that almost drowned parts of Narc and Carnahan’s Beamer spot has been replaced with Robert Frazen’s more focused but no less energetic approach; Frazen’s history in female-driven stories (“My So-Called Life,” “Felicity,” “Veronica Mars,” both of Nicole Holofcener’s films) is the perfect counterbalance for Caranahan’s testosterone-fueled bloodbaths, and together they create something almost beautiful in the choreographed hell of battle. Then again, it’s anything but ordinary when one particular assassin in a firefight gets his knees shot off, then his arms, then falls onto a chainsaw and screams as his legs and lower torso erupt in a fountain of blood. Carnahan keeps the body count high and constant, offing supporting players and major characters with equal gusto.

In addition to being a fiend for bloodshed, Carnahan remains committed to a severely masculine mode of storytelling, though not in the misogynistic way of Tarantino. For Carnahan, women aren’t anything outside of how they relate to men. Narc is a powerful police drama that relegates the wives of its two main characters to secondary status at best. A junkie’s hooker girlfriend winds up giving him an STD, which is played for sick laughs as the junkie cavorts naked around his apartment and complains of the pain. He’s been physically desexualized, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a Carnahan male; it’s only topped in Narc by that fact that Liotta’s character in that film had a wife who did him the ultimate wrong by getting cancer and dying. Smokin’ Aces continues the boys-will-be-rapey theme by stocking the story to the brim with angry men who slaughter other men freely and whose only weakness is the fairer sex. Even Georgia, despite her murderous tendencies, only gains access to Israel’s hotel by posing as one of the prostitutes Israel’s going through like Kleenex. She gets ogled by the Tremor brothers and even her own partner, and finds an unlikely connection with Ivy (Common), one of Israel’s bodyguards. It doesn’t matter how strong she may have been; she still had to have a man rescue her.

It’s becoming harder to separate Piven from Ari Gold, the ruthless agent he plays on HBO’s “Entourage,” and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. He’s been mining the same shtick for years now, and he’s honed the character of sarcastic outsider down to a fine art; he’s like a young David Spade, only charming. His turn as Israel isn’t markedly different from his TV work, which isn’t markedly different from the rest of his roles, but it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing Israel with the same mix of swagger and self-loathing. And Reynolds’ leading man chops are finally starting to catch up to his smartass persona, and Carnahan is smart enough to have him rein in the humor and focus on the drama. But Reynolds is overshadowed at every step by Liotta, who seems to be Carnahan’s muse (he even starred in Carnahan’s car ad), and is still as powerful as they come. There’s a confidence in the strength Liotta brings to his character that’s often missing from the rest of the cast, who go in screaming where Liotta brings a cold focus.

For all its faults, though, Smokin’ Aces is an entertaining trip, slick despite its hollowness and visceral enough to keep things moving. Carnahan trades on most of the plot points he used in Narc, including a long-ago murder that might have more to do with the present than any of the characters know, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Carnahan’s earlier feature is better than this one, in large part because while the cops in Narc pursued a series of criminals through the city’s underworld, Smokin’ Aces stalls out as the characters come together in one place, one hotel, one room. The narrative’s energy becomes centrally focused, and the result is an eye-catching but unaffecting spectacle.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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Smokin' Aces / Daniel Carlson

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