If you don’t know ahead of time it may come as a surprise to you that Quentin Tarantino does not direct the new action film “Smokin Aces”. That is certainly high praise for writer/director Joe Carnahan and it is praise that is well earned. Carnahan has the knack of shocking his audience with scenes of brutal violence but making the violence part of the scene so it is believable and makes sense within the confines of the action of the moment. Carnahan makes sure to almost hypnotize his audience with his violent vision and keep us highly entertained for almost two hours. This is a rare studio film opening in one of the worst months for movies that is truly exciting and entertaining. And it isn’t for the faint of heart. Its violence is strong and unbiased.
“Smokin Aces” tells the story of one Buddy “Aces” Israel, a Las Vegas performer so popular he is being introduced on stage by none other then Wayne Newton himself. Buddy is at the top of his game at magic tricks and has the habit of having a deck of cards handy where he performs sleight of hand tricks without ever breaking eye contact as he converses.
Buddy, much like Frank Sinatra, gets his feet wet in the mafia underworld but, unlike Sinatra, gets greedy and demands more of the piece of the pie. Buddy eventually gets too big for his own magical britches and angers the big boys that helped him get in on the action. Buddy agrees to betray these big boys to the Feds in exchange for a new life in the witness relocation program.
Primo Sparazza, Buddy’s former mentor, is too old and too ill to worry about jail and announces that he wants Buddy dead and offers a $1 million bounty to anyone who brings Buddy’s heart as proof the deed is done.
This gets the film’s main plot in motion as the chase begins. The FBI, headed by a tough deputy (Andy Garcia), dispatches agents Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds to Lake Tahoe, where Buddy is in hiding in a resort penthouse. They need to get there before the mob does. Or anyone else.
Carnahan then introduces us to a series of killers who have all received word of the bounty on Buddy and all intend on collecting. This is an odd but eclectic group and each has their own distinct and unique method of killing.
Most interesting, and frightening, may be a group of three men known as the Tremors. They look like skinheads and freely use anything from high-powered weapons to chainsaws to take care of their victims or anyone that stands in their way.
Singer Alicia Keys makes her screen debut as a lesbian hit woman who used the power of sex to get close to her victims. Keys makes an impressive debut and appears to have another avenue of success ahead of her should she choose to accept it.
Two more hit men added to the mix include Acosta, a man who specializes in torture, and Soot, who kills his victims and then makes molds of their faces so he can convincingly disguise himself to gain access to his victim.
Added to the mix is Ben Affleck in a role that reminds us (after his strong turn as George Reeves in “Hollywoodland”) that there are still some acting chops left inside him. Here he plays a bail bondsman hired by a desperate, cross dressing attorney (nicely played by Jason Bateman, in an all too brief role) to find the bail-jumping Buddy. He brings along two cohorts to saddle Buddy and encounter some very unexpected obstacles. Affleck’s brief scene with one of the Tremor boys is a highlight.
As everyone starts to converge on the resort in Lake Tahoe, along with some unsuspecting security guards and hookers, gunplay and bloodshed come to the forefront as each killer tries to take a step closer to the bounty while the unsuspecting Buddy whiles away the day waiting for sex and drugs.
The performances here are all first rate. Jeremy Piven is spot on as the apparently doomed performer who got too much too soon and wanted more at any price. Ray Liotta reminds us that he is a compelling performer in the right role and Ryan Reynolds, heretofore known for mostly gross out comedies like “Waiting,” is quite good as Liotta’s partner who wants an explanation for everything and still believes that what is right is right.
Carnahan does a terrific job of juggling each story back and forth without ever getting too bogged down in one story and forgetting the others. He has a knack for action scenes (there is one brilliant sequence when two foes realize who the other is in an elevator) and keeps things moving with a tight script. He even throws in a nice twist at the end that is completely unexpected but totally convincing.
“Smokin Aces” is the kind of film you expect to see playing at theaters during the summer. Then again, maybe not. This film is action packed and violent but it is also intelligent and extremely well made.
How often do you think that about an action movie while putting a coat and gloves on?