Friday, February 10, 2012

Smokin’ Aces Is No Bound, Nor The Usual Suspects, Nor Worthwhile

The Good: Good cast, I liked two of the characters
The Bad: Feels long, Boring, Intensive set-up for little action, Unextraordinary characters, plot and acting
The Basics: With minimal entertainment value, Smokin’ Aces disappoints this viewer so much that only after I'm done do I realize I reviewed the movie without ever mentioning Jeremy Piven.

One of my favorite stories I occasionally share is about my childhood and how I played with toys. I used to have a playroom in the basement of my house where I could spread out with all of my toys and play. It was wonderful. However, my father was a stickler for neatness and as a result, whenever he called my siblings and I up for dinner or when it was time to go to bed, the basement had to be spotless, everything had to be put back in its place or else we got in trouble. My thing was that I would come up with elaborate backstories for all of the toys. Every character had a history, a concept, a motivation that would set it in motion when my play began. Yes, I suppose this was an obvious foreshadowing to my life as a novelist, but at the time, the result was that I would spend hours setting the toys up and figuring out how everything was going to begin and then - invariably - my father would call down to have me clean up. Sigh. Thus, after a great deal of setup and preparation, many of my scenarios ended with "And they all fell in a pit and died" as I swept them up and back to the cupboards where they are stored. Sitting through the abysmal Smokin’ Aces, I am reminded of this and I have the feeling that writer/director Joe Carnahan might have been raised the same way.

When the head of the Cosa Nostra, the Mafia in the U.S., is about to be taken down by a snitch who is basically a mobster wannabe named Buddy "Aces" Israel, a $1,000,000 bounty is put on Israel's head and he becomes a target for a couple of hitmen. What results is a collection of four hitmen/hitwomen/hitmen families converging on a hotel while the feds try to protect Buddy Israel. The "catch" for the hunters is that in order to collect the bounty, Israel's heart must be intact and . . .

. . . who cares?

Okay, I was excited about this movie when I sat down to it. I was drawn to it because I've been enjoying Jason Bateman in his role on Arrested Development (reviewed here!). He has a bit role in Smokin’ Aces and he's part of a large cast that is enough to dupe the uninformed into believing that this movie cannot possibly be a piece of crap. Be glad you can be informed!

Actors I respect in other works turn in surprisingly bad performances or have almost no screentime. Andy Garcia appears with as little inspiration as when he performed in Twisted and Ben Affleck is reduced to little more than a cameo. It's a sad thing when the most impressive performance may well be from a singer, in this case Alicia Keys.

The thing about Smokin’ Aces is that it's a long set-up, the first half hour is all exposition that establishes who the characters are. It's all setting up the board and it feels that way. The characters are stylistically introduced with their names on the screen so the viewer can keep them straight, as if to justify a ridiculously complicated sense of backstory to each of them. Then, there's about forty-five minutes of bloodbath which is broken up by trips to a wounded character who slowly recovers throughout the day enough to pop up near the very end. And then it ends with an elaborate explanation of what all has happened, so the viewer knows just what they've sat through.

Nowhere nearly as clever as The Usual Suspects, Smokin’ Aces wants to be complicated and smart and also wants to cater to the blood and guts crowd. The result is that it fails to satisfy either crowd. I tend to fall more in the former crowd, wanting a smart, intense movie that might actually surprise me. The only newer film of late to do that for me was Lucky # Slevin and Smokin’ Aces is both more contrived and needlessly complicated than that film. The thing is, the basic storyline, which includes a fifty year old murder of a Federal Agent that is shown over and over again is pretty easy to figure out. I'm not saying I called the end exactly, but the way the murder of the agent is shown makes it obvious that one of the supposed twists is that the agent is not dead. Before you get up in arms and screaming about spoilers, I'll say this: the murder of the federal agent is shown early on in the movie and the thing is, anyone paying even a modicum of attention will notice that the viewer is never shown the guy getting killed. Sure, he's shot, but we never see him die. Movies that want to be clever need to be clever and this tries to be surprising and shocking while putting almost everything in full view. As a result, if you're awake and have your brain engaged, the movie is not surprising, not intense and not particularly clever.

Okay, I hear you cry, what if you want to see this for just a brainless, manly action adventure flick? Wow, will you be disappointed. See, I actually sat down to this hoping it might be a bit of blood and guts. I wanted to watch a bunch of bounty hunters nailing each other to get to the prize first. I thought it would be violent, suspenseful, intense and basically a competition between professionals of a certain ability; that's essentially what the trailer promises.

Instead, the Federal agents sent to protect Israel, along with hotel security are mostly competent and good at their jobs. In fact, the only glaring problem with the Feds is that they seem to know that one of the most insidious bounty hunters got away and they seem okay with that. Otherwise, they rival the gun totin', chainsaw wielding maniacs set upon Israel.

If you're looking for brainless and intense, you're bound to be disappointed because the movie continually removes itself from the action and insinuates talking. I'm a big fan of movies involving conversations, information and character development. Here is completely destroyed the flow of the movie. There's action, long exposition, action, More than a competition between bounty hunters for the prize of Israel's (literal) heart, this becomes a weak "storming the castle" type movie where all sorts of characters who are touted as being mean and undeniably badass are for the most part thwarted by generic feds.

Sure, there's Richard Messner, the Fed played by Ryan Reynolds with no hint of his Just Friends persona. No, here he's dedicated, determined, professional, and in the last fifteen minutes over-the-top melodramatic. The result is that he becomes one of the few characters the audience cares about, though he is not focused on enough to be truly empathetic.

Even worse, the film entirely weakens itself by pushing the limits of human endurance and suspension of disbelief. There's a wonderful scene where Messner's partner, Donald Carruthers, ends up in an elevator with one of the most notorious of the bounty hunters, Pasquale Acosta, and correctly identifies him as one of the potential assassins. It's a great moment that I cheered for because I like seeing federal agents portrayed as smart and efficient. The result is that the equally clever criminal draws down on Caruthers and both end up shooting each other several times. The moment this happened, I turned to the person who I was with - who was generally as bored with the movie as I was by this point - and I said, "I like that, that they were so matched that they took each other out. That was cool." If the story had gone this way the government would have lost by simple attrition (there are more hunters than feds) and the movie could descend into a bloody free-for-all for Israel's heart with a fair amount of believability. But no, that was not to be and the resulting scenes that involve the characters continue to gut an already broken up movie.

In short, there's not enough action to be an action movie, not enough clever to be engaging, not enough screentime for any of the performers to give any characters a chance to become truly empathetic, and not enough of a sense of the stakes to make the viewer care. Smokin’ Aces was a film that promised to entertain and failed to live up to those promises like going to a James Bond movie and getting an algebra lesson. At least when I was a kid and I had to throw my toys back into storage with the excuse "they all fall into a pit and die," I got dinner afterwards. In Smokin’ Aces there might be a bit of carnage as the hunters fall, but then it's followed by a lengthy exposition that bothers to explain why everyone who died did, long after the viewer stopped caring.

I'm going to go watch Bound (reviewed here!) and try to forget I ever sat through this one.

For other works with Ryan Reynolds, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Change-Up
Green Lantern
The Proposal
X-Men: Wolverine
Definitely, Maybe
Waiting . . .
Blade: Trinity


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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