A lot of critics went lollipops over Joe Carnahan’s 2002 film Narc—something that is not happening with his new film, Smokin’ Aces, a work that makes Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin (2006) look like a masterpiece of witty cinema.
It’s easy to see what Carnahan was shooting for: a sense of Tarantino-esque over-the-top quirkiness combined with the cinematic playfulness of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) and the convoluted trick storyline of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995). But Carnahan fails spectacularly on every level. It’s easy to pinpoint why he fails; though it’s frankly difficult to muster the enthusiasm to go into it very deeply—not in the least because even if Carnahan had succeeded, he’d have only succeeded at making a trendy retread several years after the trend had passed. It would be nothing but a successful exercise in ho-humdom instead of a botched one.
As it is, Carnahan has ended up with a pointlessly brutal, blood-soaked mess where the convoluted plot is painfully obvious (minus the preposterous last minute twists, which are merely laughable), where the quirkiness is merely silly, and where every attempt at cinematic sleight of hand lands with a resounding thud. This last is probably the film’s greatest single weakness. The attempt to emulate the kind of offbeat time-shifts in Snatch—moments where the action backs up for two events to intersect—is here reduced to merely cutting away from one scene for several minutes only to cut back to the action of the previous scene where time has apparently stood still. This might work as a literary device, but it feels clunky and forced in a movie—not to mention slightly amusing, because it’s hard not to envision the characters just freezing in place while waiting for us to get back to them.
Another huge problem lies in the characters in Smokin’ Aces—all of whom are either unlikable or so two-dimensional that they might as well not be there. As a result, there’s no reason to care who lives or dies. The worst of these is undoubtedly Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven, Two for the Money). Apart from setups and flashbacks of his mob dabbling and his stage show (oh, look, he’s really being introduced by Wayne Newton!), he spends most of the movie holed up in his penthouse, snorting cocaine. Even beyond the eyebrow-raising concept of Jeremy Piven as one of the press release’s touted “incendiary cast,” the character he’s given isn’t even marginally interesting or quirky or funny, let alone sympathetic. If he was even one of those things, it might be possible to at least maintain a degree of soup/sson of involvement, but since he isn’t ,AeP
The same case holds with pretty much every character—Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson as a pair of quasi-lesbian hit women fare slightly better—to a degree that it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re watching a black comedy made by a guy with absolutely no sense of humor. Carnahan’s idea of hysterically funny never extends beyond doodle-like caricatures of antisocial punk rocker-esque hit men with chainsaws, an ADD-afflicted kid with a positively erotic (literally) kung fu fixation, a shameless rip-off of the Boris the Blade character from Snatch etc. It’s hardly knee-slapping material.
The lack of actual humor is, I’m guessing, supposed to be made up for by sheer overkill. It doesn’t work. I don’t doubt that one could make something funny out of falling on a chainsaw or the image of a fired-up lesbian toting a 50-caliber gun, but the twist or quirk necessary completely eludes Carnahan. What you’re left with is an alternately tedious and ridiculously violent nihilistic screed trying to pass itself off as hip entertainment. Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use.