Dir. - Joe Carnahan
Viewed: From the Couch
The ad campaign for Smokin' Aces did something I found to be pretty hilarious. It took a negative review that A.O. Scott had run in the NY Times and spun it around to try and lure audiences with the promise of ultra-violence and cheap thrills. They added a voice to their bullet filled trailer that had a guy with the moviephone voice summarizing the beginning of Scott's review -- "'F.B.I.! F.B.I.!' Blam blam blam blam. '[Expletive]. [Expletive].' Blam blam blam. Spurt of blood. '[Expletive]. [Expletive].' Plot twist... Roll credits." I had read his review prior to seeing the new trailer and was highly amused by this tactic. Personally, I prefer the line in his review where Scott compares watching the movie to being hit repeatedly in the face with a raw sirloin steak. I guess that line wasn't as malleable. At any rate, it didn't work on most people and the movie was quickly moved off the screens (its vacancy soon to be filled by Shoot 'Em Up which I'll get to shortly).
For one reason or another I couldn't shake my interest. I'd been following Carnahan's career for a couple years at this point since my belated viewing of Narc, a low budget, tough-guy, under-cover cop movie with Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. Tom Cruise helped get Narc into theaters and then tried to get him on board to direct M:I3, which didn't work out but resulted in a four year hiatus until his next movie came out. Spend that amount of time following up a movie with the amount of promise Narc showed and you're going to generate some high expectations -- at least with indie-film nerds. In some ways Smokin' Aces and Southland Tales can both be looked at as the results of filmmakers who tried to come back with a vengeance and left their audiences scratching their heads. Both movies have a throw-everything-we-got-at-them-and-enough-should-stick-to-leave-them-happy. Except Southland is shooting for the moon while Aces is just shooting. This leaves Southland infinitely more interesting and rewarding and Aces a bit of a slough to get through.
The performances in Smokin' Aces is what saves it from being an utter and complete failure. It still is an unrewarding mess, but for the people involved they come away unscathed as tey do their best to shine in the few moments each one is given and elevate the movie from the doldrums of a witless action flick. Jeremy Piven plays Aces. He's not a pleasant character. He treats women like used condoms, is constantly shoving cocaine up his nose and even treats his, um, entourage like punching bags for verbal assaults. He's got a price on his head and there are those who want to protect Aces (Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds, Ben Afflleck, Peter Berg, Martin Henderson) so that he can testify against the mob and those who want Aces dead (everyone else in the movie). Piven does an excellent job. He starts out as the most vile human being and through one or two scenes he's able to become the most pathetic human being. Unfortunately this is what 90 percent of the cast is asked to do -- take a stock character and in your second or third scene turn it into magic right before you get shot ten times.
The ones who pull it off are great fun to watch. Early on we meet seven or eight characters who either get hired or hear about the price on Aces head (or heart, rather). The most notable are Alicia Keys and Davenia McFadden as a pair of feminist assassins and the Tremor Brothers, three guys who just came in from the apocalypse ready to shed blood. The Brothers are very much comic relief of the grimmest sort. They dress from the Road Warrior catalog and dispatch their victims with all sorts of interesting handy items you'd find laying around the tool shed. When you first see them donning goggles you wonder, that's a bit over the top ans silly isn't it -- which not only is a dumb thing to wonder about something in this movie, but you quickly learn that no, those goggles are quite essential to how they go about their work. And as small a part as they play in the big picture the Feminist Assassins are clearly the soul of the movie. The quasi-sexual relationship between Keys and McFadden as they prepare for their hit really works better than it should. Think of Vincent and Jules preparing to bust in on those kids in Pulp Fiction but instead of talking about foot massages they were flirting with each other like a couple of butch feminists. But like everything else in the film it doesn't pay off at all.I appreciated the fact that this movie keeps you off balance. Any one of the characters you meet in this movie could get a bullet or seven in him or her at any moment. You don't know who, if anyone, is going to make it to the credits. I like that. The only movie that I can think of right now that pulled that off well was the first Alien. I give Smokin' Aces a little bit of respect for trying it and coming up with interesting characters but when all is said and done you really have to come up with some sort of ending that pays off. The most obvious comparison for this movie is True Romance, a movie that looks like Touch of Evil compared to Aces. Both movies take their time setting up a big shoot out in a hotel but where True Romance spends time doing things like developing characters Aces puts all its money on its big reveal at the end. And this twist is so shitty that it nullifies any enjoyment you might of squeezed out of the first two thirds of the movie.
And so here's the question -- how important is a movie's final 10 or 15 minutes? Certainly that last act is the feeling that you are leaving the movie with. You can be entertained to the tits by 75% of the movie but if it shits the bed at the end you're leaving with that stink on your mind. Smokin' Aces betrays the viewer with its ending. That's my opinion but that's what will ruin a movie for me. Some people get pissed by open ended movies. I've heard a lot of complaints about No Country For Old Men's ending. I like that ending because it jibes perfectly with what we were presented with and strikes at what the title of the movie represents. If I were watching The Babysitter is Dead and at the end of the movie the babysitter was just a heavy sleeper -- I'm pissed -- it doesn't matter how much fun I had with the hi jinks the kids had thinking the babysitter was dead for the first three thirds of the movie. That's my biggest problem with Smokin' Aces (among a bevy of others). Otherwise I'm happy to give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt and let him or her end the movie the way they want to. If it doesn't betray what came before it I won't be let down by the lousy last act of an otherwise great movie. But I'm thinking of some other examples of a bad (or good) ending that ended up flipping your view of the movie.