With the Mafia all but eliminated, a testimony against the family comes back to bite wannabe gangster Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Piven) when the Don offers $1 million for someone to do him in. Cue a small-scale riot as everyone and their sister tries to get their mitts on the money — everyone, that is, except for two feds trying to knock the last nail into the coffin of organised crime.
Set in a shiny but soulless Lake Tahoe casino, it’s a case of sit down and switch off as the hopeful hitmen close in on their mark. With a million bucks at stake, everybody is trying to get to get from A to C by blowing a hole through B. There’s a group of ex-cops led up by Ben Affleck, a trio of neo-Nazi headcases, one or two more stealthy killers and a lesbian couple — one who uses her looks to disguise herself as a hooker and get close to Aces while the other adds a bit of drama making doors out of walls and getting claret everywhere with a gun that’s so huge that it really wouldn’t look out of place on a tank. Obviously there can be only one winner, so everyone (naturally) ends up gunning for everyone else.
And that’s pretty much it. There’s enough gunfire and explosions to give you a seizure, in fact there’s so much going on in the way of style, that the substance feels shoehorned in as we’re regularly spoonfed a seemingly irrelevant backstory in an attempt to set itself apart from the more generic, which it does to be fair. The grey matter gets called into use towards the end, just to see if you’ve been paying attention, while every shot looks as good as you’d expect from Carnahan. It’s a bold, brash melee of a movie, which is enough to stop you nodding off. The ensemble cast reading like a who’s who of US television isn’t all bad either — Jason Bateman’s turn as a herpes-infected, panty wearing attorney practically steals the film, while you’ll have to be watching closely to spot head of security Matthew Fox as he’s dressed up like Ron Burgundy.
Ray Liotta is typically flawless, Ryan Reynolds finally gets to play a part that’s not, well, Ryan Reynolds but still it’s Jeremy Piven who’s gives the best. Playing ‘Aces’ with all the cockiness of that guy everyone knew at school that thought he was tough just because he was mates with the bully, and with the desperation of a man who’s having the rug pulled out from underneath him. It’s an astounding performance that needs to see him in bigger and better films. Like an American Lock, Stock without the charm, Smokin’ Aces may be more of the same, but it’s never dull. Directed with guts and confidence, it’ll please the masses looking for a violent Friday-nighter, but may leave others feeling like they’ve been a dealt a weak hand. Think Tarantino directing The Cannonball Run and you’re along the right lines.
SECOND OPINION | Neil Davey: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the heavyweight championship of the cinema world. In the blue corner, weighing in at 930lbs, it’s Style. In the red corner, weighing in at 4oz, it’s Substance. Seconds out, round one... Blimey. That didn’t last long. Style wins by a knockout and Substance is left bleeding on the canvas. All of which is a long way of saying that, in terms of adrenaline-pumping action, slick camera-work and ultra violence, Smokin’ Aces has few rivals. The same could also be said of its logic and plot. Just not in a complimentary way.
Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a magician about to turn state’s evidence on the Vegas mob. That means there’s a price on his head and just about every assassin in the US — including Ben Affleck, Alicia Keyes, Chris Pine and Martin Henderson — is willing to cash in. It also means that his protectors — FBI agents Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds — are about to get very, very busy. Cue gun play, violent deaths, eccentric characters, violent deaths, double-crosses, violent deaths, a cast of thousands, violent deaths, triple crosses, violent deaths, a ridiculous twist and… oh, there was something else... It’s on the tip of my tongue... Oh yes. I remember. It was “violent deaths”. Frankly, the word “overkill” has never been so applicable. At a certain, testosterone-fuelled level, Smokin’ Aces certainly entertains: director Joe Carnahan made the excellent Narc and clearly knows what he’s doing. It’s just a shame then that, with his talent, this cast and this budget, he’s ended up with something that makes no bleeding sense whatsoever.