Review by Mark Walters


Director Joe Carnahan made a big impression with the low budget but highly competent cop drama NARC.  Hollywood was immediately taken with his talent behind the camera.  Now he's been given a lot more money, and a powerful and diversified cast to make a big budget action flick titled SMOKIN' ACES.  With such a respectable first effort, can Carnahan follow it up appropriately?

  When FBI agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) discover a mob plot to kill Vegas entertainer Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven), they become determined to put a stop to it.  Their superior Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) lets them in on an old mob case which may or not have a bearing on the assigned hit.  But the bounty on Israel is a cool million bucks which draws the attention of all the major hit men (and women) around.  The players includes bail bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck) and his buddies Pete Dekes (Peter Berg) and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson), the female assassination team of Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and Loretta Wyman (Taraji P, Henson), psychotic torturer Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), mystery man Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan), and the nihilistic Tremor Brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, and Maury Sterling).  With Buddy now a target, Messner and Carruthers must get to him before anyone else does.  But with that much money at stake, there's gonna be a lot of greedy psychos in their way.

  This gritty crime drama suffers two major problems.  First and foremost the script is rather disjointed.  There are moments where we have Tarantino-esque action sequences, filled with gratuitous violence and witty dialogue exchanges.  Then we're suddenly thrust into a rather serious and thought-provoking crime drama, meant to stimulate the thinking man in the audience.  There's little to no cohesion in the screenplay, and the movie ends up feeling all over the place as a result.  The second shortcoming comes from the underdeveloped characters, none of which we ever really care about.  Sure, some will live, and many will die, but in end we're not really invested enough for it to matter.  Oh sure, they're all eccentric, and many are memorable, but beyond that there's no substance behind them.  There are also missed opportunities with characters like Buddy Israel.  Here's a guy who has lived a life of excess, and is now literally under the gun.  With the situations taking place around him, there are more than a few chances for some sort of redemption.  Sadly he's just a schmuck through and through, and again, we don't care if he gets it or not.


  SMOKIN' ACES is one of those movies that plays off the OCEAN'S ELEVEN type of mentality.  Let's put a bunch of cool actors in a flashy movie, let 'em act cool, and the audience will love it.  But where OCEAN'S ELEVEN pulled it off, this one falls rather flat.  Who is the hero?  Is it Ryan Reynolds?  Am I supposed to be cheering for him?  Heck, I don't know.  Should Buddy Israel die?  Maybe.  Does any of this matter.  God only knows.  Ensemble pieces like this either work or don't, but a poorly executed screenplay can easily destroy the best cast ever assembled.  Joe Carnahan succeeds in directing this madness in style.  It's shot beautifully, and everyone looks interesting, but none of it meshes.  Initially I was on board with the story, especially when a few major characters are rather unexpectedly obliterated early in the story.  I thought "Hey, this may be a nice surprise."  But as the story unfolded, I found the whole thing convoluted and too hectic for it's own good.  Instead of concentrating on the impending hit (or hits) put out on Buddy, the script tries to incorporate a secretive mob story that took place years ago, and tie it in with the present day events.  Oh, and the heavy-handed ending, totally doesn't fit everything that comes before it.  Now let me talk about the stuff that works.  The action is great.  When all hell breaks loose, it really breaks loose.  Simple things like two guys shooting each other are ramped up to an explosive level the likes of which we've never seen.  It's disturbing and chaotic, but it works.  Jason Bateman shows up as a sleazy lawyer, and is hilarious from start to finish, while he's in it.  Common is surprisingly good as Buddy Israel's right hand man, and might just be the most likable character in the film when all is said and done.  LOST star Matthew Fox shows up in a cameo that's one of the better scenes in the movie, even if we know right away where it's headed.  The thugs.  Carnahan did manage to introduce us to some uniquely diversified baddies, and they're different enough to remain fascinating in their own separate ways.  Often times in films like this we get cookie-cutter bad guys that could've walked off the set of several other films.  These scumbags are just different enough to be somewhat refreshing.  But aside from that one strong point, this film is pretty much a mess.  I like Andy Garcia, I like Ryan Reynolds, I really like Jeremy Piven, and Ray Liotta is always fun to watch... but even these guys can't save this film, sorry to say. score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, I give SMOKIN' ACES a 5.

Visit the official Universal Pictures SMOKIN' ACES movie website by clicking here.

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