For his follow-up to 2002’s blistering William Friedkin-ish Narc, writer-director Joe Carnahan unwisely goes the threadbare Tarantino route with Smokin’ Aces, a multi-character crime saga that’s even less appealing than watching televised poker. Managing the impressive feat of getting practically nothing right, Carnahan’s film is the ugly stepchild of True Romance and its infatuation with guns, hookers, and dope, detailing the efforts of various “colorful” hitmen to be the first to collect $1 million for rubbing out Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a cheesy Vegas magician holed up in a Lake Tahoe casino who made himself into a Mafioso and—much to the chagrin of La Cosa Nostra bigwig Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), who’s put the bounty on Israel’s head—now plans to cut a deal with the Feds and squeal on his former nefarious associates. What this setup initially entails is an introductory 15 minutes of nonstop exposition delivered by multiple characters about would-be assassins, former undercover agents, and other particulars wholly inconsequential to the action at hand, which itself is—in the greatest of many missteps—so flaccid that most of the convoluted goings-on play out like clumsy foreplay for a climax that never materializes.
Filled to the rafters with notable actors stuck in unvaryingly one-note roles, Smokin’ Aces features three distinct types: the banally noble or heroic (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta’s F.B.I. men; Common’s bodyguard), the quirky (Ben Affleck’s Fu Manchu-sporting bail bondsman; Piven’s coked-out, neurotic Israel), and the “extreme” (a trio of chainsaw and machete-wielding neo-Nazis; Jason Bateman as a lawyer wearing women’s underwear; assorted sadists-for-hire). As none boast anything resembling an amusing, frightening, endearing, or believable attribute, it’s no surprise that Carnahan’s set pieces lack any degree of consequence, his glossy cinematography (by the skillful Mauro Fiore) and use of CG camera tricks, speed-shifts, and zooms into close-ups never amplifying his script’s shootout centerpieces or commenting on his story’s (nonexistent) themes in the same manner as did Narc‘s adrenalized handheld-shot opening chase. This substance-free aesthetic approach is epitomized by a scene fragment in which men delay opening fire on psychopaths bursting forth from a smoky elevator so Carnahan can get a good single-take of all three fiends racing toward the camera—throughout, the film’s priority remains superficial showmanship, not substance or logic.
If there were a degree of blistering heat or ironic self-consciousness to accompany the air of moral bankruptcy, some of the movie’s gawky pacing and shallow plotting might be overlooked. Yet failing to kick-start his convoluted train wreck into anything livelier than first gear, Carnahan in the final act instead nonsensically pleads with his audience to care about the ciphers he’s just gleefully riddled with bullets, veering his outline of a film into faux-operatic drama rooted in the agonizing grief and inflexible principles of Reynolds’s cop, who becomes the finale’s focal point and (seemingly by default) ethical champion. It would all be monumentally risible if it weren’t so persistently distasteful, the director incessantly and callously glorifying violence while nonchalantly tossing in touches of rank misogyny and homophobia presumably in an effort to up the “edginess” ante. After a film infused with the no-nonsense, cynical swagger of The French Connection, Carnahan seemed on the precipice of hardboiled greatness. With Smokin’ Aces, he astonishingly and depressingly proves himself on the verge of becoming merely a second-rate Guy Ritchie.