Smokin’ Aces is a handsome and entertaining 108 minutes, but it’s not a good movie, and it’s difficult to get at why. Yes, the flick has its problems: brand confusion with the Burt Reynolds vehicle Stroker Ace, for starters, not to mention the gratuitously fugly hairpiece Jeremy Piven is forced to model as the titular Buddy “Aces” Israel, which looks like a pastry chef extruded it onto Piven’s head using one of those cake-icing squeeze-bags.
And the plot is an issue as well—or, really, the “plot,” since Smokin’ Aces has a story arc like Liberace had girlfriends, in the sense that you understand the gesture but you wonder why he bothered with it, or for whose benefit. Writer/director Joe Carnahan’s narrative –- an Airport ’75-sized cast of hitmen and G-men converges on Tahoe to kill (or protect) Mob stoolie Buddy Israel; carnage ensues -– is a MacGuffin designed by Rube Goldberg, and in any case is mostly an excuse to string together a bunch of crunchy, dreamily-lit set pieces in which gargantuan amounts of ammunition are discharged.
A few of those set pieces do seem like the kinds of ideas that, say, Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie would come up with first, then build a movie around—or backwards from. Jeeves Tremor’s (Kevin Durand) grisly demise astride a chainsaw is set up so carefully, and shot so precisely, you know it didn’t just “occur to” Carnahan during a script polish; he’d been saving that one for a while. Ditto the elevator shootout between Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta, playing it likeably square) and Diego (Nestor Carbonell); Carnahan switches to a God’s-eye view when the gunfire starts, and when the lights get shot out, the scene is lit only by muzzle flashes. It’s tricksy, a little bit, but it’s still a gorgeous shot, and Carnahan doesn’t linger on it; he just lets you take it in and then moves on.
Again, it’s easy to imagine Tarantino or Ritchie grooving on that type of scene, on innovating violence for its own sake or to get you to admire how difficult it must have been to set up the shots, and the bulk of the critical response to Smokin’ Aces would have you believe that that’s the movie’s problem—that Carnahan is not only cynical, churning out hyper-violent scenarios designed to hammer on nerve endings QT deadened ten years ago, he’s also derivative, for the same reason. And maybe it is how Carnahan thinks. Maybe he set out to make an insincere, flat series of videos about the gory deaths of a bunch of sociopaths, and the actors he hired all just decided to undermine his vision by turning in grave, gorgeous performances that don’t belong in this particular movie. Because that’s what happened. The problem with Smokin’ Aces is not that Carnahan is cynical. It’s that he isn’t. Yes, you can sense an almost scientific-seeming interest in complicated, brutal gun battles and how the work of those battles gets done, but Carnahan pays equally close attention, startling in its tenderness, to how the work of pain and sadness gets done.
Carnahan has an eye for moments of grace, and of grief; he respects them as a storyteller, and he’s conscientious about making room for his actors to work. Buddy Israel is a grody little douche who’s probably getting what he deserves, one way or the other, but when you see him slumped against a couch in his cheap slippers, cocaine ringing his nostril, leaking tears as he mulls a deal with the feds, wanly doing card tricks to help him decide, you feel enormous pity for him. Piven gives you the hopelessness; Carnahan doesn’t rush you past it. Following Sir Ivy (Common) as he carries Georgia (Alicia Keys) down the stairs isn’t essential to the plot, either, but as these strangers flirt with each other, betrayed and shot up and exhausted, your eyes fill up at how beautiful they are together. Part of the appeal is their physical attractiveness (you want a sequel, Smokin’ Deuces or something, so you can see the amazing children they would have together), but part of it is the comfort, the quiet between them, finding each other alive.
Then there’s Sharice (Taraji P. Henson) proceeding through the stages of heartbroken rage, thinking her girlfriend Georgia is dead, then seeing that Georgia isn’t so much her girlfriend; the cut to the hallway behind Sharice, the noose of lawmen tightening around her as she’s hunched over her huge firearm with her back unprotected; the cut away from the room, paired with the faint crackle of gunfire, Sharice’s end heard but not seen…it’s a lovely sequence. Henson plays it gorgeously, Carnahan shoots it with evident affection for the character, and you watch it feeling saddened and a bit awed. It’s completely sincere—and completely unearned, like the other big, cinematically emotional Sad Scenes™ before it, like Ryan Reynolds’s big scene after it. Carnahan constructs and renders depictions of shock and grief that are very affecting, but the fact is, we scarcely know these characters. You’ve never seen a falling tear shot quite like Carnahan shoots one; the man presents onscreen crying with a reverence that would verge on the fetishistic if it didn’t also feel so understanding. And it’s an admirable quality, this empathy, both in Carnahan and in his actors (who knew Van Wilder could summon such believable reserves of emotion?), but it’s not one that belongs here, spent on people we’re only invested in because the movie has told us we should be.
Smokin’ Aces is fun while you’re watching it, but frustrating once it’s over—a series of meticulous and gentle investigations into the little moments, flattened by heavy artillery and a too-large cast (I haven’t even mentioned Ben Affleck, whose mustache is as rad as you’ve heard, or Martin Henderson’s perfectly calibrated reaction shots). It’s as if Carnahan set out to make an action movie with a few laughs, but then he started thinking about these characters as people, people he knows, about what they might feel in these situations, and suddenly he found himself with all these charming and deeply felt character-driven scenes in a big, bloody plot-driven mess of a movie.
And it is a mess. But it’s not dull, it’s not shallow, and Carnahan isn’t a hack. Smokin’ Aces isn’t a movie that tries to be Tarantino and fails. It tries not to be Tarantino and fails.
House contributor Sarah D. Bunting is co-editor-in-chief of Television Without Pity.com and co-author of Television Without Pity: 752 Things We Love to Hate (and Hate to Love) About TV. More of her writing appears at Tomato Nation.com.