On January 7th this year, writer/director Joe Carnahan uploaded a photo of his completed script for the video game adaptation Uncharted to his Instagram. Video game adaptations are notorious in Hollywood for never quite living up to the hype, or the demands or expectations from fans. This didn’t stop Carnahan from adding a little hype to his own script, adding the caption:
“Done and Dusted. Now the REAL work begins. If there’s a more monstrously cool action script in Hollywood right now, I wanna read it, ‘cuz this thing is a BEAST.”
If Carnahan’s own hype is to be believed, then we really could be in for something special. A “beast” that may finally buck the trend of the video game curse (you know, like the under-performing Assassin’s Creed or the universally panned Warhammer were supposed to do over the past year). Funnily enough, this week also marks the 10-year anniversary of Carnahan’s third movie, one that suffered from similar hype in its build up: Smokin’ Aces.
When the first trailer for Smokin’ Aces was released in mid-2006, it promised so much. Jokingly beginning by stating it was from the makers of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Love Actually, due to production company Working Title Pictures, the trailer quickly breaks down into the unrelenting strains of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spaces” and delivers a one-minute assault on the senses filled with colourful characters, numerous shoot outs, and some big name actors. If the trailer was to be believed then we could well have been in for one of the greatest action movies of our time. We weren’t.
Carnahan had made an impact with his previous film Narc (2002), a tough, tightly wound cop thriller with great performances from Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. The violent corrupt cop shtick had been done many times before but Narc remained fresh with a jigsaw puzzle of a plot that keeps the viewers and the cops guessing. However, the problem with Narc is that it never gets over its opening scene, a frenetic foot chase on hand held camera which is the Point Break (1991) chase scene on steroids (or in this case, a nasty concoction of heroin). The scene barely lasts two minutes, but is shockingly jaw-dropping. But the film never attempts to reach those heights again and instead of maintaining that pace throughout, Narc instead slows down to a more familiar cop procedural thriller pace. Could Smokin’ Aces build on the promise of that Narc opening scene and create an action movie for the ages?
Building on the promise of the first trailer, the plot was a simple premise that seemed designed to build on the unrelenting nature of the trailer: mob boss Primo Sparazza puts a $1 million bounty on the head (and heart) of Las Vegas entertainer Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) who is located in the top floor of a hotel tower. A motley crew of assassins all set out to claim the bounty. Setting an action movie in a tower block usually, and quite rightfully, evokes memories of Die Hard (1988). This premise set Smokin’ Aces up as the anti-Die Hard; instead of one man trapped in a tower fighting a squad of bad-assess, it was a crew of bad-assess ready to wage war to get one man at the top of a tower. With that trailer we could all surely forget about Die Hard anyway.
Not only that, the movie promised an ensemble cast to die for. We had Carnahan reunited with his Narc star Ray Liotta, so good in Narc and forever a legend due to Goodfellas (1990)! We had a meeting of the mobsters as the Goodfellas star going up with The Godfather Part 3 (1990) and The Untouchables (1987) stand-out Andy Garcia! We had the return of 90s wonderkid Ben Affleck, whose career had bulldozed due to a string of flops and a disastrous and very public relationship with Jennifer Lopez. And we had Ryan Reynolds, the kid from Van Wilder: Party Liaison (2002) who looked ready to go against comedy type and tackle a big boy’s action movie. You know, just like Bruce Willis in Die Hard! What could go wrong?
Well, a lot actually. The opening set up of the $1 million bounty and introduction to the cast of characters who plan to compete for the heart of Buddy Israel is promising enough. We have Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), a bail bondsman who is backed up by a couple of ex-cops. Dupree suspects that the Tremor brothers (Maury Sterling, Kevin Durand, and an extremely pre-Captain Kirk Chris Pine) will also likely be in on the action. Dupree states that the Tremor brothers are known for their “suicide style, kamikaze shit” and promises that they are “meaner than shit, dumber than hell, and these motherfuckers will go megaton at the drop of a hat”. Meanwhile, Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keyes) and her partner Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) are both given the subtitle of “Contract Killer” and are coming off some kind of Triad hit which sounds exciting enough. Or there’s Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), a blood money mercenary who is dubbed “El Estrago” or “The Plague”, who is notorious for his torture techniques and biting off his own fingertips so he couldn’t be indentified when he was captured by the SAS in Northern Ireland. Presumably they just let him go after that then. And that’s just to breeze over the huge crew of lunatics and murderers all out to cash in on the bounty. So many maniacs, so many possibilities….
Instead there is roughly 5 minutes of action in a roughly 90 minute movie. Rather than delivering action. the movie attempts to build up to the characters all converging at the hotel at the same time. But it never quite happens. All that action from the trailer happens essentially in one scene where the Tremor brothers go insane and launch an attack on a squad of cops protecting Israel. At least that build up for the brothers paid off. They die quickly though, so ultimately it was pointless and stupid. Meanwhile, the grand return of Ben Affleck ended after barely 25 minutes as he is taken out by the aforementioned Tremor brothers. Affleck would eventually have to turn director with Gone Baby Gone (2007) to save his career. Ryan Reynolds at least was given something to work with, and a grand, if overblown, final moment; however you feel that they could have made more of his comedic chops, especially with all the manic characters surrounding him. If only there was some kind of wise-cracking, ultra-violent killer that Reynolds could have played instead…
Also, rather than focusing on the action, the movie instead focuses on the much less interesting sub-plot with FBI chief Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia, who sleepwalks through this movie) who has some kind of incriminating evidence on Primo Sparazza. When Garcia mentions that Primo Sparazza has taken out one of the FBI’s own, Freeman Heller, one of their most celebrated agents, along with a black and white flashback, it might as well have a neon sign flashing in the corner stating, “pay attention here because this might be important later on!”
The focus, rather than any action, is on long drawn out scenes with the overflow of characters. Smokin’ Aces does feel like Joe Carnahan attempting a Tarantino movie, like so many had tried since his initial wave in the 90s. This usually meant you threw as many characters as possible on the screen, with as crazy back stories as possible, have them talk a lot, and throw in the occasional bout of ultra-violence. Only the dialogue here just can’t drive the movie. Scenes go on so long that they almost become comical; the Tremor brothers have an elevator ride that lasts forever, Common and a bunch of cops wait for that elevator but it is taking forever, meanwhile one of the possible killers (Joel Edgerton, with a bad haircut) is locked in the room and takes FOREVER to finally try and kill him. There is a difference between build-up and just wanting them to get on with it.
But by the time they get on with it the movie is over, finishing with a twist ending that those neon signs in the Andy Garcia scenes have directed you towards the whole time. Aiming for a similar twist ending of Narc, which was much more subtlety driven towards, this ending instead becomes overblown, very self-important, and actually manages to render everything that has come before it completely pointless. It feels like it belongs in a much different movie. And that’s the problem: Smokin’ Aces is a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be, whether it’s an action movie, a cop thriller, drama, or a post-Tarantino talkie-comedy-violent-comic book.
It’s not all bad though. All of the performances are watchable, with Alicia Keys looking every bit the movie star, and Ryan Reynolds giving a serious leading man role a bash. Jeremy Piven is actually quite gripping as the drugged up Israel, even if you have no reason to defend his horrible character from the murderers out to get him. The Tremor brothers are as manic as their hype suggested, with a highlight being a young Chris Pine straddling a dead Ben Affleck and having an imaginary conversation with him about how beautiful heaven looks, which brings the ultra-violent neo-Nazi to tears. Captain Kirk and Batman were definitely a long way away from here.
Smokin’ Aces is a movie with many problems: A misleading trailer that promised a much different movie from the finished product, a 90-minute run time that somehow feels drawn out, and an overabundance of characters to the point nobody gets time to shine. And what will always be so frustrating is knowing how good it could have been; the promise of the first trailer, the seemingly unmissable plot, Narc and that standard setting opening scene! As such, it turns out Narc is still the standard Carnahan has to aim for, and that opening scene he still has to top. And if we want to watch a great tower block shoot-em up then we’ll always have Die Hard – or at least we did until The Raid (2011) came along and really showed us how well it could be done.