What is cool?
Thirteen years ago, it was Quentin Tarantino’s self-conscious black comedy “Pulp Fiction.” Four years later, Guy Ritchie pumped up the body count and number of quirky hitmen in the adrenalized “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.” I may not be the all-knowing arbiter of what is cool and what’s not, but I do know one thing: the non-stop superficial mugging of “Smokin’ Aces” would not even have been cool if it had come out twelve years ago, when Tarantino rip-offs were as common as Hootie & the Blowfish hit singles. This movie is so bad it makes “2 Days in the Valley” seem like “The French Connection.”
What a disappointment to see that writer/director Joe Carnahan’s newest film has none of the grit or heart of “Narc,” his overlooked hard-hitting cop thriller from 2002. I’m assuming that the promise shown by that movie is what made established actors like Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck, and Ray Liotta (so terrific in “Narc”) sign on for overblown cameos in this retread material. It is an uninspired and unfunny cross between “Lock, Stock” and the zany star-studded treasure hunt of 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and the wacky cross-country car race of 1981’s “The Cannonball Run.”
From the first scene, it is obvious Carnahan has lots of explaining to do, because he’s doing it with onscreen text. Usually this move is reserved for sci-fi films or period pieces with lots of historical backstory, but “Smokin’ Aces” is so convoluted that when it was edited together, perhaps even the director was confused. The quick fix is to add some titles before the movie starts to explain what’s going on.
It didn’t work. The movie doesn’t make any damn sense, and a desperate last-minute attempt to make us care about the characters is laughable.
It is an easy enough premise: A powerful mob boss puts out a hit on informant Buddy “Aces” Israel (a wasted Jeremy Piven), and all kinds of colorful hitmen descend upon Las Vegas to kill the same man. Unfortunately, Carnahan spends the first twenty minutes cramming in enough exposition to support an entire Tolkein trilogy. He doesn’t need it, because the one-note characters are like the silly street gangs in “The Warriors”—we know them only from their physical characteristics and puffed-up attitudes.
Stuff like this may have been cool for a minute in 1994 before everyone aped Tarantino without being clever and could still made a quick buck at the box office. Alicia Keys is a sexy hit woman who dresses up like a hooker. There’s three rebellious “punk” hitmen who are supposed to be Neo-Nazis, but dress like Trent Reznor at Lollapalooza. “Smokin’ Aces” is so desperate for quirky laughs that one of Affleck’s regular Joe buddies gets trapped in a trailer home with a kid on Ritalin who sports nunchucks, an eye patch, and a boner—which he gleefully shoves in the poor bastard’s face.
Who still thinks all this artificial preening and pumped-up “bad ass” behavior is cool? Maybe there are some junior high-aged geeks who think this all sounds like heaven, but the momentary titillation of seeing a burned out loser kicking beautiful naked women out of his hotel room and watching morally bankrupt assassins casually blowing each other away will wear off soon, and they’ll eventually become bored just like I was for the entire film.
The movie’s only saving grace is a cameo appearance by Jason Bateman as a hilariously dry-witted and sleazy lawyer. The laughs in that scene propelled some goodwill forward, but that soon disappeared and it was back to more dumbed-down funny business. During all sorts of twisty and coincidental plot machinations, any focus on presenting the hitmen as people to care about is lost, and it is obvious that “Smokin’ Aces” is intent on shocking its audience with lame put-ons and outrageous behavior. The movie is an exercise in “weird for weird’s sake,” and it is unpleasantly transparent.
Late in the game, some weepy piano music is ushered in and we are meant to feel sympathy for all the people who have been riddling each other with bullets for the last twenty minutes. An unlikely moment of love at first sight follows all the garish carnage of the final gunfight, and one character’s inexplicable decision to simply let two assassins go after an inappropriately heartfelt plea is particularly false. You can’t recklessly move people around like action figures on a playset and then ask us to give a shit.
If that’s not enough, here comes the typical twist ending that we could care less about. Here’s a twist: I’m not wrapping this review up. Roll credits.
What actor played Batman in this photo?