Ace in the Hole
You may have noticed the action genre undergoing a minor overhaul lately. Smokin' Aces illustrates how films of this nature are becoming a little rougher, a little meaner, and tend to go that extra mile to show the viewer an explosive good time. Domino, Crank, and Running Scared belong to this new school of more hardcore action movies, and although Smokin' Aces doesn't quite graduate magna cum laude, it's definitely on the dean's list as far as movies like this are concerned.
The story is a simple one. Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a washed-up drug fiend/Vegas magician, is getting set to testify against his mob-based connections, serving pretty much the entire West Coast mafia to the FBI on a silver platter. It's not long before La Cosa Nostra gets wind of this and offers a million dollars to the person who does in Israel -- and brings back his heart on a plate. A rogue's gallery of assassins, hired killers, and various forms of criminal ilk, including slinky hitwoman Georgia (Alicia Keys) and her partner (Taraji Henson), as well as a trio of psychotic siblings known as the Tremor Brothers, hear word of the prize and proceed to converge upon Israel's penthouse hideaway in Lake Tahoe, with guns blazing and chainsaws roaring.
Two FBI agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) are bent on protecting Israel at all costs, but with a cadre of killers this determined to, as one character eloquently puts it, "pour boxes of bullets" into ol' Aces, they'll need everything they've got to keep their star witness alive and kicking.
As much as I appreciate films with complex characters and intricate storylines, sometimes I just like to turn my brain off and let the good times roll. Smokin' Aces provides that kind of experience -- a veritable ballet of bullets that should have no problem satisfying the appetites of action fans. Still, I was a little disappointed because the movie wasn't quite the frenetic actioner the trailers made it out to be. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of carnage to go around, but it's all a bit more spaced-apart than the ads might lead you to believe.
Smokin' Aces tries to incorporate a smidge more depth and story than a lot of action films are willing to tackle, which ends up working both for and against the flick in the end. Writer/director Joe Carnahan (whose last picture was the modern-day cop movie masterpiece Narc) keeps things interesting in terms of a variety of characters; everyone from masters of torture, bail bondsmen, and killers with Mission: Impossible-style masks come out of the woodwork to take down Israel. Carnahan does a good job matching this motley crew (the Tremor Brothers are officially my new best friends) with a series of hard-hitting action sequences that put Steven Seagal to shame. After involving so many figures in the action, he also manages to generate a little surprise when the time comes for some of them to bite the dust.
However, as mentioned earlier, Smokin' Aces runs into trouble when Carnahan allows too much time between action sequences. The filler consists of a little repetitive dialogue, wasted character development, and a mixed bag of acting. Jeremy Piven stands out by giving a solid performance as the coked-up, sex-crazed, and strung-out Israel. Alicia Keys, in her leading debut, also does a nice job here. But almost everyone else gets little screen time to really shine; Ben Affleck doesn't have much to do as a bondsman hired to bring in Israel, two of the less-prominent assassins are a couple of yawners, and as dementedly awesome as the Tremor Brothers are, they definitely get the shaft in terms of screen exposure.
Despite a handful of buzzkill moments, Smokin' Aces musters up enough energy and action to spice up the multiplex in these early, barren moviegoing months of 2007.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" by MPAA.)