Writer/director Joe Carnahan delivered one of the best films of 2002 with Narc, a superb crime/mystery which featured masterful performances by Jason Patric & Ray Liotta, a superb screenplay and tight direction.
Carnahan’s follow up is Smokin’ Aces, another crime movie that features a broad, big name cast no doubt drawn by Carnahan’s work on Narc.
Jeremy Piven stars as Buddy “Aces” Israel, a Las Vegas magician who gets in deep with the Italian mafia, begins a mob war, and then cuts a deal with the District Attorney (Andy Garcia) agreeing to turn states evidence if given protection.
The mafia retaliates by placing a $1 million bounty on Israel’s head. This brings on a slew of hitmen itching to get Israel, including; a bail bondsmen (Ben Affleck) and his two ex-cop friends (Peter Beg and Martin Henderson); two hard hitting, lesbian contract killers (Alicia Keys and Tajari P. Henson); a sadistic hitman known for his torture techniques (Nestor Carbonell); three half witted, neo-Nazi trailer trash boys known as the Tremor Brothers (Kevin Durand, Tommy Flanagan & Chris Pine); a deadly master of disguise (Tommy Flanagan); and a mysterious man known only as The Swede. It is up to FBI Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) to get Israel into custody before it is too late.
Smokin’ Aces is an extremely violent movie that is set at a fast pace. It features a multitude of crazy, memorable characters and a number of solid performances, especially by Jeremy Piven (who as many Entourage fans will know is excellent when unhinged) and Ryan Reynolds. Jason Bateman provides laughs with a bizarre cameo, and Matthew Fox is also good in a minor role.
Carnahan takes advantage of a bigger budget, providing some huge visuals and spectacular action sequences. However, a lack of restraint on Carnahan’s part foes cost the film, as style beats substance to a pulp, and story is sacrificed for over the top filmmaking.
A key example of this lies within the first 20 odd minutes, where the films vast array of characters are introduced and the story is set up. With such a complex plot and large number of characters, a much slower pace was needed to let the information sink in. Instead the viewer is treated with a slickly edited, multi-narrated, hyper kinetic breeze through the mechanics of the story, which comes across as more of an ode to the films of Guy Richie than a key plot device.
Also, an extremely weird segway featuring Martin Henderson with a Ritalin popping child proves to be an annoying distraction.
High expectations were placed on Carnahan, and one cannot help but wonder whether he has dropped the ball here. Smokin’ Aces is an entertaining film. But not the type of film I expected to see from Carnahan, who impressed me greatly with his previous effort.
Hopefully, next time he will present his story in a much clearer and clever context, using his budget to this advantage and not his disadvantage.