End of the Road: Smokin’ Aces
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 18, 2008
“What do you see right now? You see exactly, and only what I choose to show you. That is illusion Ivy, that is the lie that I tell your eyes, makin’ the magic happen, in the moment, in that split second… but seeing behind this motherfucker and knowing… that it’s all bullshit.”
In the beginning, there was Tarantino. There was Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, two movies which redefined the gangster pic as being fun, largely light-hearted affairs, with criminals far more sympathetic than any of the (limited) law enforcement and an ear for crackling, instantly quotabel dialogue. These movies begat Get Shorty and 2 Days in the Valley, which in turn were taken across the pond to Snatch and Sexy Beast, and exported back to its country of origin for, uh, Gigli and Lucky Number Slevin. Surely, ten years later, and with increasingly diminshed returns, I figured the sub-genre had hit its lowest plateau.
Then I caught Smokin’ Aces on cable, and I realized how far it still had to fall. To call it the worst action movie ever made, or at least of the last decade, would not be too great of an overstatement. And that’s not because it’s the least enjoyable, or the least well made, or because watching it even made me the most angry. But the way I’ve always defined quality in film is by weighing the goals a movie sets out for itself vs. how well that movie achieves those goals. And by those criteria, no movie is a bigger failure than Smokin’ Aces.
Full disclousre: I love race movies. And by race movies I don’t mean Crash or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–I mean movies where a whole cast of characters are racing towards one common goal, usually where only one (or one pair) can actually succeed. You get to meet a whole bunch of characters (even better if they’re played by famous people, even better if they’re playing against type) and get to watch them essentially playing in a single-elimination death tournament, like a March Madness of action-comedy. The entire movie, you have to constantly be readjusting your hopes and expectations, rooting for whoever’s left and hoping that one dude/chick/dude-chick-pair isn’t the one to come out on top.
And because of that, I figured Smokin’ Aces would be the aboslute pinnacle in cable film entertainment. And I’m not even saying I won’t watch it on TV again, but dear lord has no movie wasted the kind of potential that this has. Let’s look at that cast: Andy Garcia. Ben Affleck. Ryan Reynolds. Peter Berg. Alex Rocco. Jeremy Piven. Ray Liotta. The guy who plays Richie Aprile in The Sopranos. And, oh yeah, Common and Alicia Keys, in their high-profile film debuts. You’ve got all these people, some solo, some duos, some in groups, plus about a dozen other less well-known contenders, fighting to get to a mob kingpin played by Jeremy Piven, a guy who could make Merchant-Ivory flicks watchable at 3:00 on a Saturday night. How could they possibly go wrong?
Indeed, how is the question. Bad screenplay? Incompetent director? Who knows–but not only did the movie go wrong, nothing went right. The characters given the most development are the ones that get killed in the first 45 minutes. Nifty soul and garage rock cuts percolate throughout the movie, but bear nothing on the scene in question and are often heavily incongruous with the rest of the movie. Countless villains show up that have absolutely no consequence on the plot at large, presumably to give the movie flair but actually just making things confusing. The only person you care less about than Israel’s would-be assassins is Israel himself. The action, little that there actually is, is shot with that frenetic post-Saw methed-out look, and most of the action that is present seems about as pointless as anything else in the movie.
Usually, the key to movies like this (even when the action is far from on point) is in the comedy, but as with Lucky Number Slevin, the movie isn’t funny enough to beign with, and then takes a weird turn for the dramatic part way through. Reynolds’ fury over the killing of his partner Liotta (the relationship of which was maybe given one scene’s development beforehand) and over the movie’s shocking twist ending (they actually want Israel for a heart transplant to save the mobster he’s supposed to be ratting out, because the mobster is actually the agent who was supposed to be infiltrating the mob 60 years ago with some plastic surgery…trust me, it doesn’t make much more sense if you’ve seen the movie itself) leads to an extremely heavy finale.that makes it seem like Joe Carnahan thinks he’s making Collateral.
This is the end, my friends. This is the end of the hip action comedy with the swift editing and the nifty soundtrack. This is the bottom. And if Action filmmakers across America don’t start picking it up a little bit, I might give up on Starz and HBO to get me through my days off altogether.