Up in smoke
Smokin’ Aces takes things a little too far
There are some deliberately dumb movies that only somebody with a fair amount of smarts could have made. But in the knuckleheaded action comedy, there is also a thin, wobbly line between smart and smart-ass. Smokin’ Aces is one of those, and it’s just dumb enough to be too smart for its own good.
Actually, the over-revved speed-freak storytelling in this one does offer a good deal of fun—fun that continues well beyond the point where things begin to go really rancid. Writer-director Joe Carnahan’s slam-bang fast-forward yarn piggy-backs plot twists, character intros and wisecracking jive, one atop the other, right from the outset, and that generates a farcical energy whose appeal is almost enough to sustain the entire operation.
But if the crazed storytelling seems irresistible, especially in the early reels, the story itself soon runs afoul of its own blithe, cynical nastiness. Carnahan sets out a patently over-the-top tale with FBI agents, Mafiosi and a horde of gonzo assassins converging on the penthouse lair of a supposedly protected witness—one Buddy “Aces” Israel, a stage magician with Lake Tahoe casino connections and Mafioso aspirations. But well before the film’s plague-on-both-your-houses ending, it’s evident that Carnahan’s killer comedy lacks the courage of its farcical intentions.
At the risk of making it sound more perversely interesting than it really is, you could say Smokin’ Aces is riffing on combinations of Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects and Ocean’s Eleven. But, whatever truth there may be in all that, Carnahan’s movie pulls the rug out from under itself (and its audience) far too often to have any kind of integrity—comic or dramatic—left at the finish.
Even with Carnahan’s satirical jibes as violent movie fantasies and the arrested male adolescents who gorge on them, the climactic plot-twists come off as hugely disingenuous. Carnahan mocks fantasies of violence while indulging them, with results that seem cynical and fatuous, and maybe cruelly obnoxious as well. The rambunctious abundance of the thing remains appealing enough to make you regret that Carnahan couldn’t make it something more than a grab-bag of violent movie antics.
Ultimately, Smokin’ Aces fails to sustain the brio of its assorted and perhaps more memorable “moments"—Taraji Henson as a high-caliber assassin who does feminist spiels on the side; Ben Affleck as a sleazy bail bondsman; some shoot-outs in hotel elevators; Andy Garcia playing an FBI agent as if he were cult actor Timothy Carey; Curtis Armstrong playing a wimpy business agent with a permanent hangover; a demented ninja kid and his amiably addled grandma; the rapper Common as Buddy Israel’s incorruptible bodyguard; etc., etc.